You Better Believe It

[Cache #187]

By Andris Pone
President, Coin Branding

Each of us believes we are different from everyone else.  It would be deflating like a New England football to believe otherwise – that there is essentially nothing that makes us unique, or that we have no one-of-a-kind contribution to make in this life.

Why, then, do we overwhelmingly use the same language as everyone else to describe ourselves in our bio, resume, or LinkedIn profile?

LinkedIn last week confirmed our predilection with its release of the “most overused” words on its site in 2014.  As Catherine Fisher, LinkedIn’s Director of Corporate Communications put it:

“If you’re motivated about your career, passionate about doing your best work, and are highly creative, then I’ve got news for you: so is everyone else.  We’ve just announced our annual list of the words that make you go ‘meh’ – the most overused, underwhelming buzzwords and phrases in LinkedIn profiles of 2014 across the world.”

Here are the Top 10:
1. Motivated
2. Passionate
3. Creative
4. Driven
5. Extensive experience
6. Responsible
7. Strategic
8. Track record
9. Organizational
10. Expert

“Meh” is right.  Words like these not only mask your unique qualities, they ensure that none of the people whose attention you are trying to grab will begin to care about you in the slightest.  What can, on the other hand, seize attention and spark caring is your explanation of why you have the listed qualities.  As Simon Sinek famously put it in his TED talk, brain science supports the fact that “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

And so the question becomes, “What’s your why?”

A quick glance at the very first line of Catherine Fisher’s LinkedIn profile reveals that she is using precisely this approach:  ”I learned early on in my career that what motivates me is promoting brands that I truly love.”

Then she literally asks the “why” question:  ”I work for LinkedIn and I love the brand.  Why?  Because I can share my professional accomplishments, stay in touch with former colleagues, celebrate the brands I love, and constantly learn.”

Compare that with the opening lines of pretty much any other LinkedIn profile, bio or resume out there, and what you’ll find is that you “get” Catherine, and even feel a connection with her, instantly.

You’re different from other people, right?  You believe that you have a unique contribution to make in this world, correct?  Then say it like you believe it.

New comment in Globe and Mail:  Standing out from the business school crowd
Recent comment on CBC Radio One:  Uber’s Misbehaving Executives

Book:  Buy the #1 Globe and Mail bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo or download a free chapter

Posted in be remark-able, brand authenticity, brand differentiation, brand foundation, core purpose, key messaging, personal branding, positioning, self-actualization | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Je Suis Birdman

[Cache #186]

By Andris Pone
President, Coin Branding

Michael Keaton is floating in his underpants.  Not that they are loose.  He is levitating, in mid-air, cross-legged.  It is the very first shot of his latest movie, Birdman, which is tied for the lead with nine Oscar nominations, and it immediately establishes one of the film’s key themes:  freedom.

Or enslavement, depending on how you look at it.  Keaton’s character is the somewhat-past-his-prime star of the Birdman series of films, in which he starred as the titular, superpower-endowed character.  But now, in a small Broadway theatre, he is desperately and at times ineptly trying to do the opposite of what other people expect of him, the masses hoping for a brainless Birdman 4.  Surely not the play about love that he is producing, and is frantically trying to hold together long enough to get through opening night.

My movie date was curious about why this film resonated so deeply with me.  I replied that I am deeply attached to the idea of people doing whatever they want in terms of livelihood (hence the Coin vision and mission).  Of people throwing off the way they are “supposed” to be or what others expect them to do.  Without giving too much of the movie away, my debatable interpretation is that Keaton’s character successfully broke free of others’ expectations, and that his accomplishment was a beautiful thing.

“But wait,” said my date.  ”You say that ‘a brand is what people think of you.’  For someone who loves the idea of not doing what other people think you should do, doesn’t that definition place too much importance on what other people think?”



I will have to get back to you on that.

Five days have passed, and I have realized that my answer is first, yes:  I place too much importance on what other people think, both in my personal and work life.  And second, that it has become more clear to me, thanks to my date’s query, that the most important person in the definition ”a brand is what people think of you” is you.

I spend a certain amount of my time pointing out (what I consider to be) the shortcomings of others’ brands – their undifferentiated positioning, their bland vision statement, their war criminal headshot – and asking some variation of the question:  ”On the basis of a brand that looks incapable, aren’t you concerned about what other people will think of your ability, or the ability of your company, to do decent work?”

But let’s forget about other people for awhile, and instead ask:  ”What do you think of you?  Have you set your brand free?  And if not, what will it take?”

New comment in Globe and Mail:  Standing out from the business school crowd
Recent comment on CBC Radio One:  Uber’s Misbehaving Executives

Book:  Buy the #1 Globe and Mail bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo or download a free chapter.

Posted in brand authenticity, brand differentiation, positioning, self-actualization, what is a brand?, what is branding? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Target Missed

[Cache #185]

By Andris Pone
President, Coin Branding

The Target debacle has been so spectacular, it has endowed the following maxim with new meaning:

“The only thing harder than building a brand is changing one.”

In the context of Target, one would expect that these words, listed among Ted’s Maxims at the end of Brand: It Ain’t the Logo, mean that a bad first impression – a stumble out of the gate – is something from which you may never recover.  Or to invoke another adage:  you only get one chance to make a first impression.

On the surface, this seems to be the essence of Target’s Canadian story (which is now, with 18,000 people out of work, a tragedy):  from the moment they opened, consumers thought the prices were too high and the shelves were too empty.  That was the brand that Target established in Canada, and they found out that to change it would be to climb a mountain of losses too high.

But look deeper, and an unexpected new meaning to the maxim emerges:  that once you have established your brand as a very strong and clear one, attempt to change that position at your peril.  Target U.S. had created in Canadian minds such an amazingly clear position – low prices and super-wide, cheap-chic selection – that they should have known their pricing in particular would create deafening dissonance in this market.

Yes, doing business in Canada is more expensive.  Canadian shoppers, unfairly to be sure, did not care.  They expected an American Target experience and they did not get it.

Is it impossible, then, for big American retailers, those with widespread brand awareness north of the border, to successfully transplant their operations in foreign soil?  Walmart did it 20 years ago, and compared to Target, their offering is at least as tied to low prices.  Nordstrom is the highest-profile U.S retailer about to attempt it, and in contrast to Walmart and Target, their brand is all about superlative service – and the lower vulnerability to margins that presumably comes with it.

If Nordstrom suppresses any Yankee hubris, and hires a whack of very senior Canadian retail executives, and then listens to them – and if their Canadian customers do not die of heart attacks upon being greeted by someone who cares in this cold service culture – they should do fine.


New comment in Globe and Mail:  Standing out from the business school crowd
Recent comment on CBC Radio One:  Uber’s Misbehaving Executives

Book:  Buy the #1 Globe and Mail bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo or download a free chapter

Posted in brand culture, brand differentiation, brand equity, brand experience, Brand It Ain't the Logo, customer service, positioning | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What Word Will You Own in 2015?

[Cache #184]

By Andris Pone
President, Coin Branding

The Charlie Hebdo massacre has confirmed once again the inestimable power of words and ideas.  They clearly have the power to anger and inflame, and if one looks at the cartoonists’ work, there can be little doubt of its intent.  The cartoonists did not deserve to be killed for it, of course, just one point made by the Onion in this eloquent piece of satire.

Words and ideas just as obviously have the power to inspire, and if one listens to the spectacular-sounding French of US Secretary of State John Kerry, as he was offering his condolences and solidarity – or if one contemplates the meaning of the Je Suis Charlie mantra – it is difficult not to be touched.


And yet, too many of us give too little thought to the quality of our communication and what its deficiencies say about us as professionals and ultimately as human beings – about our brand, in other words.  I am referring to the fact that in the realm of writing, illiteracy looks like the new normal.

Visit the online properties of the Globe and Mail or the National Post, for example, institutions that view themselves as the bar-setters for the quality of our national conversation.  The copy of their reporters and columnists is rife with typos (even a legend like Jeffrey Simpson has horrible typos in his work) – many so egregious as to make sentences or paragraphs, or even the entire story, incomprehensible.

Look at the emails you send and receive – for spelling, grammatical, punctuation and capitalization errors that, in sum, are making the tone of this media increasingly abrupt and non-human.  This is not to say that brevity and directness in email is undesirable, or that it’s not OK to communicate with different levels of formality with different audiences.

However, in the realm of business communication, we should write as if we actually care about the recipient.

Mistakes that convey a lack of caring are not just the domain of people who are not naturally good writers.  I will start off 2015 with an admission that, because I can be smug about the quality of my writing, I have typically sent out Cache without having it proofread.  The result in a recent post was the biggest typo in 182 issues.

As the guy who claims word mastery as a brand position, Cache has to be perfect every time.  So it is the highly literate Arwen Long who has proofed this post, as she will every post from now on, even though any errors will always be my fault alone.

Your standard probably doesn’t have to be word mastery, but in 2015, you can still let words work powerfully in your favour instead of against it.

Al Ries, legendary author of The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding and other classics, defines a brand as “a singular idea or concept you own inside the mind of the prospect.”  At its most refined, therefore, a single word.

What word will you own in 2015?  Keeping in mind that ”sloppy” or “uncaring” simply will not do.


I was just reading a December 20 piece from the Globe and Mail.  How unfortunate that on such a serious topic, in a column written by Naomi Klein no less, the Globe refers – in a headline – to missing and murdered “indigeneous” women.

2015-01-12 18.57.46


Posted in brand copywriting, consistency, personal branding, positioning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Tim Hortons: Brazilian as a Bikini Line

[Cache #183]

By Andris Pone
President, Coin Branding

The quintessential Canadian brand is not really Canadian, and has not really been Canadian for substantial stretches of the past 20 years.

Tim Hortons remains, in the Canuck mindset, as Canadian as snowfall in June.  Despite the fact that Tim’s is majority owned by foreign companies, making it at least as accurate to say Tim’s is as American as apple pie, and as Brazilian as a bikini line.

tim hortons logo

So why do we Canadians persist in thinking of Tim Hortons as Canadian?

Because we need them to be.

It is the same reason that Canadians think the NHL is a Canadian league, when almost 80% of its teams are American and its headquarters are in New York.  It is the same reason that Canadians buy the CFL’s tagline – “This is Our League” – when 70% of its starting players are American, there is a quota that the remaining 30% of starters must be Canadian (otherwise many of them would not start) and the official league rules cannot bear to call the American players “American” so instead run a fake by calling them ”internationals.”

It is the same reason that Canadians think of Molson-CoorsLabatt and Sleeman as Canadian, each of which has foreign ownership ranging from approximately 50% (Molson-Coors) to 100% (Labatt and Sleeman).  Yet each of which persists in patronizing Canadians with brand positioning that leans heavily on their (bygone) Canadian heritage, as opposed to telling American, Belgian and Japanese stories, respectively.

We need them to be Canadian because our profoundly deep attachment to this country vastly outweighs our ability to protect and nurture national icons.  Because we are a small country, even if we don’t feel that way.

What do your customers fundamentally need to believe?  Your employees, your strategic partners?  And how can you give it to them in a way that, rather than stretching the truth, celebrates it?

New comment in Globe and Mail:  Standing out from the business school crowd
Recent comment on CBC Radio One:  Uber’s Misbehaving Executives

Posted in brand authenticity, brand differentiation, brand stories, positioning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Standing out from the business school crowd

Comment from yours truly in a Brenda Bouw feature for the Globe and Mail, alongside my good friend Mark Healy, CMO of Tennis Canada.

Posted in andris pone media comment, brand culture, positioning | Leave a comment

“Thank you for that stunning penetration into the obvious.”

[Cache #182]

These were the cutting words of a professor of mine at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, which he had borrowed from an acerbic professor from his own undergraduate days. The class was Commercial Law, and the expression seemed somewhat unfair to wield against unsuspecting students who, for the most part, were taking his class disinterestedly, as a mere elective.

Perhaps because of its clear-eyed cruelty, the retort has stuck through the years, coming again to mind recently as I spoke with a friend who works for Canada Goose, the apparel company that has staked out a brand position as the maker of coats that are – wonder of wonders – really, really warm.

It is the same “obvious” strategy employed in the 1990s by Westin, as they took a fresh look at the hotel bed and had the revolutionary idea of making it really, really comfortable – and naming it, brilliantly, the Heavenly Bed.

And it is not that different from Subway, which has – by staking everything upon food that is fresh, presumably as opposed to rotten – incredibly surpassed McDonald’s by 20% in number of stores, with more than 43,000 globally.

And it is again cranked up this holiday season by WestJet, the airline strongly differentiated on the earthshattering basis that it actually cares about its customers.

All of which demands of us, if we are prepared to listen to the question: in our own businesses, in our own daily lives, in our own relationships, what truly obvious difference-maker are we missing?

Recent comment on CBC Radio One:  Uber’s Misbehaving Executives

Book:  Buy the #1 Globe and Mail bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo or download a free chapter

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Second Cup’s Only Shot

[Cache #181]

By Andris Pone
President, Coin Branding

If, in your heart of hearts, you doubt our nagging claim that too many organizations fundamentally don’t know what a brand is, you need look no further than the just announced “rebranding” of Second Cup.

Second Cup’s stores have been behind the design curve for years, so the need to update the logo, store interiors, uniforms and the like is not in dispute.  But that work, unveiled at a flagship location this week, does not a rebrand make.  On the contrary, it is not much more than window dressing that will have little to no impact on whether Second Cup can grow its moribund market share and once again be relevant in the Canadian coffee house market it invented.

What Second Cup and many other organizations are missing is that a brand is not a logo (or new uniforms, or a new colour palette), but that it equals culture.  And in Second Cup’s case in particular, a major overhaul of that culture is required if they have any hope whatsoever of delivering an experience that rivals category champion Starbucks in any way, shape or form.

It is a lacking culture – not a lacking logo – that allows stores to get run down, dirty and irrelevant in the first place.  It is a lacking culture – not a lacking uniform – that leads to front line employees who do not hold a candle to the bright faces and engaged minds of Starbucks’ staff.

And yet, in Second Cup’s press release, not a single use of the word “culture” in reference to employees or the experience they are expected to deliver.  Speaking of staff, being the humans who actually deliver the brand, the word ”employee” appears but once – in reference to the “stylish new employee dress code.”

To Second Cup’s great credit, the word “experience” appears 11 times, so they know that the true differentiator in the upscale coffee business, whose physical product is a commodity after all, is indeed the customer experience.  The problem is that a new logo, coffee machines and store design – and even the coffee itself – are not the pivotal aspect of experience.  Employees are.  And their level of effectiveness at delivering a great experience is driven by culture, not by what the logo looks like.

The media believes brand equals logo as well.  Do a Google search for “Second Cup new brand” and look at the words that pop out in their first lines of coverage:

We can only hope that Second Cup CEO Alix Box, who knows a hell of a lot more about the coffee business than I ever will, is working on cultural change behind the scenes.  In the last lines of her press release, she says that “this launch is a major step forward in our revolution…our work is far from over.”

Let’s hope so, because it is culture – the true meaning of brand, cemented as it must be in a brand foundation – that is Second Cup’s only shot.

Recent comment on CBC Radio One:  Uber’s Misbehaving Executives
Book:  Buy the #1 Globe and Mail bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo or download a free chapter.


Posted in andris pone media comment, brand culture, brand differentiation, brand experience, customer service, rebranding, what is a brand? | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Something A Bit Different About Uber

[Cache #180]

By Andris Pone
President, Coin Branding

***Click here to listen to the interview.***

One hundred and seventy-nine consecutive issues of Cache were delivered via the written word, so here is a change for issue 180:  an audio file of my four-minute interview with CBC Radio One this week on the topic of Uber, the revolutionary app-based taxi service.

An Uber executive recently made some outlandish remarks about abusing Uber’s customer data to spy on journalists.  Paul Haavardsrud of CBC asked me whether consumers hold execs accountable for such things, whether loose cannon executives hurt brands and how much consumers care about privacy.

Have a great weekend -


cbc-radio-one-logouber logo

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If You’re Up Uber Early…

You might hear my interview with Paul Haavardsrud on CBC Radio One, on the topic of controversial remarks made by executives of Uber, the revolutionary app-based taxi service.  What does it mean for the Uber brand?

The interview will run at various times in the morning across Canada, including in Toronto between 530 and 6am.

Related stories:
Uber Has Changed My Life and As God Is My Witness I Will Never Take a Taxi Again
Uber Executive Reportedly Advocated Smearing Some Journalists
The Moment I Learned Just How Far Uber Will Go To Silence Journalists and Attack Women
Uber on Wikipedia

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