I Give Trump the Gold Medal

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

What’s the biggest brand in the world?  It’s not Apple.  Or Google.  Or Microsoft or Coca-Cola or Facebook or McDonald’s.

Not for me, anyway. 

The above are the brands defined by Forbes as the top five Most Valuable in 2016, calculated through a formula involving EBIT and price-to-earnings multiples.

I think it’s a lot more interesting to work from the definition of brand, being what people think of you.  It’s a definition that begs the question:  which brands stoke within you the most powerful thoughts and feelings, good and bad?  Which are the richest with meaning?

Microsoft?  Give me a break. 

Sure, they have among the highest awareness in the world.  And true, there are many millions of people who love to hate them.  But this is not a brand abundant with meaning.  Ditto for IBM, GE, AT&T, Cisco or Oracle – some of the other brands in Forbes’ tech-heavy top 20.

So let’s broaden our focus in two ways.  First, by assessing brands on what you think/feel about them: what they mean to you.  And second, by throwing off Forbes’ limited interpretation of what qualifies as a brand in the first place.

It is not only companies and products that can be brands.  A brand is anyone or anything that anyone has ever thought about.  These things and people can, depending on your point of view, be good or bad or even evil things.  Most prominently, this list includes any human being, your pet, political parties and organizations, countries and regions, educational and religious institutions, terrorist groups, musicians and entertainers and that coffee shop or dry cleaner you love or hate down the street.

Based upon these criteria, and given that the Olympics are on, which brands in your world get the gold, silver and bronze – and why?

In reverse order, my personal podium looks like this:

Bronze: ISIS.  Does this mean I like these clowns?  Negative.  But they provoke profound fear and loathing and constant headlines around the world.  Related, note that I used the ISIS acronym as opposed to the other names this organization is known by, such as Daesh or IS or Islamic State.  Proving that some names have more power than others, ISIS as a moniker has the highest ranking in the public consciousness because it is the easiest to say.

Silver:  Harvard.  Harvard has always been fascinating to me because I can imagine no single word in any language that commands such deep respect – instantaneously ­– year after year, decade after decade.  All you have to do is say “so and so went to Harvard” and the conversation is over – except for the one other word very likely to be uttered in response:  “wow.”­

And obviously you can tell I didn’t go to Yale.

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Gold:  Donald Trump.  Does this mean I like this clown?  Personally, no.  But there is presently no match for the level of apoplexy he provokes.

One of the beauties of this exercise is that you cannot possibly be wrong.  Because there is no “wrong.”  Your thoughts are yours, so whatever you think is 100% correct.  Even better, you can change your mind:  because of the fleeting nature of what occupies our thoughts, the way your list looks next month or next year could be very different than today.

So:  what does your podium look like?

Posted in brand awareness, brand equity, brand names, positioning, what is a brand? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Will Ferrell’s Joke About Life (Insurance)

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

Summer is the time of fun and laughter, and in that vein I found myself this week watching a 2011 YouTube video of Will Ferrell’s acceptance speech for the most esteemed honour in American humour, the Mark Twain Prize.

Insofar as an award for comedy can be a serious matter, to be bestowed the Twain Prize is as heavyweight as it gets: past winners include Carol Burnett, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, George Carlin and Tina Fey.

Ferrell’s speech was of course a comedy routine, delivered to the most discriminating audience conceivable: 2,000 of his comedic peers at the Kennedy Center in New York.

To gales of shocked laughter, Ferrell began by fumbling the physical manifestation of the award, a Twain bust, smashing it to smithereens on the stage.

But what really caught my attention was what happened at 4:50.

That was the moment at which Ferrell confided what he had truly wanted to do with his life.

“You have to understand that as a kid growing up in Irvine, California, where I would sit in my room and listen to records of Steve Martin, and the original Saturday Night Live cast, or stay up late and watch Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show to see what comedians he would have on, I had one dream. One singular focus, even at the earliest age. I can remember wanting to do one thing, and one thing only. Sell insurance.”

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Imagine: one of the most brilliant comedic minds of his generation, when preparing his speech for the highest honour he may ever receive, pondered which career was diametrically opposed to fun, to happiness, to fulfillment and to a meaningful contribution to society. And he came up with insurance sales.

The audience in attendance found it very funny, but to me it is ultimately sad. Because I have helped many elite advisors in the life insurance business uncover why they do what they do. And what unique value they want to, and do, offer the world.

And without exception, their motivations are pure and their positive impact is real. In essence, they want to live a good life, one that is dependent upon helping others and their loved ones do the same.

Why, then, did Ferrell’s joke elicit such a belly laugh? Because, as with all great humour, there was an element of truth to it. Because a brand is what people think of you, and the life insurance industry has a very serious brand problem: there is a pervasive belief that someone selling life insurance is unprofessional, self-serving and pushy, that the insurance companies don’t pay out, and that the product itself is unnecessary.

Oh yeah, and it forces people to think about their own death.

Because of these perceptions – which again have kernels of truth but are not the main story – the public’s rate of life insurance literacy is low. As is adoption: only 70% of Canadians and 62% of Americans have life insurance.

Care to guess what percentage of these people is going to die?

The life insurance industry is in profound need of a rebrand. This categorically does not mean running some persuasive TV ads and leaving it at that. A brand, along with being defined as what people think of you, is culture. Thus the only way to change the outward perception of the industry is to first change that culture.

That can only begin with a brutally honest assessment and acknowledgement of the aforementioned kernels of truth, followed by programs and expectations that bring all advisors, not just the elite, up to the highest standards of professionalism. Then these advisors, led by the firms they work for, must do the painstaking work of changing clients’ perceptions, one at a time.

It’s going to be a long haul.  But it’s the only way the industry can get past being a punch line.

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You Deserve Better

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

In the season of the summer read, perhaps the most important story you could consider is your own.  What is it, exactly?  And how well or poorly are you telling it?

If we are honest with ourselves, there is almost always a gap between what we want our brand story to be, and the way it’s actually being communicated.  The antidote to this brand gap, as straightforward as it is difficult, is superior talent and execution.

Just ask Ontario.  If you’ve seen the new video ads run by the province’s tourism commission, I don’t need to tell you how stunningly remarkable they are.

How so?


The product hasn’t changed:  Ontario is still Ontario.   But wait:  these ads actually have the audacity to not show the CN Tower.  To not show Parliament.  To not show Niagara Falls or the Blue Jays.  These ads show none of that – at least not in a way that is instantly identifiable.   And so the campaign’s tagline:  Where am I?

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These ads, executed with a goosebumpingly-high level of expertise, make Ontario look like a place you’ve never been before.  Ontario’s slogan, Yours to Discover, has adorned its license plates since 1982.  But this is the first time in those 34 years that the province’s promotions have really knocked that core promise out of the park.

This is the first time the brand story has been masterfully well told.

Don’t wait that long.

Posted in brand advertising, brand positioning, brand promise, brand stories, country branding, key messaging, positioning, remark-able, taglines | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Brand Suicide of Black Lives Matter

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

The Canadian arm of Black Lives Matter has just declared Toronto mayor John Tory a non-person.  It is an absurdly ironic move for an organization that, in its American iteration at least, is doing the painstaking work of waking the white community up – from a slumber several hundred years long – to the fact that the lives of US blacks are indeed worth less than their Caucasian counterparts.

Tory’s crime was to write a letter supporting future participation by the Toronto Police in the Pride parade, against the backdrop of BLM’s demand that police floats be banned.  In response, BLM told Tory to “stay in his lane” and that “we are not interested in his sound bites…we are not interested in his vapid interests in the community.”

And also:  “We want to make it very clear to Mayor Tory … that this is an issue between the LGBT community, the black community, Pride and the community at large.”

There is an obvious logical contradiction in a statement that the mayor of Toronto is the only person in Toronto without a right to speak on an issue that affects Toronto.  But that wasn’t the meaning intended by BLM anyway.  The intended meaning was that any prominent person who disagrees with BLM is a non-person.  One who should shut his or her mouth.  And that should concern us all.

A brand is what people think of you, and last week the Canadian arm of BLM proved itself highly effective at creating brand awareness, despite what one may think of its tactics.  This week, however, they have quite likely committed brand suicide by ridiculously denigrating the integrity of the first non-black recipient of a Harry Jerome award, the premier recognition bestowed by the African-Canadian community.

John Tory also happens to be universally recognized as one of the most decent, thoughtful, honest and caring civic leaders anywhere.  That’s his brand, and it’s solid as rock.  And it is transcendent:  it matters not whether a given Torontonian voted for him, because people everywhere in this city will speak out to defend not just his right but his obligation to speak on behalf of everyone who lives here.

How can the Canadian division of Black Lives Matter save itself?  By cashing in its brand awareness.  It has obviously got our attention.  Just as obviously, it cannot continue to alienate the key players from whom it seeks action and change.  Cashing in its awareness means compromising on its positions, as in withdrawing its demand for no future police floats – something that costs BLM nothing because there is absolutely no way that Pride and the city are going to abide by that demand anyway.  And it means a real apology to John Tory, not one of those weasel-worded “if you were offended” numbers.

Why should we care if BLM saves itself?  Because, especially set against the horrifying events in the United States, we should be very carefully examining the scope of racism, in our police forces and in the broader public, here.  BLM may have valid points to make.  If only it could let us see them, by getting out of its own way.

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Brexit Bloody Well On-Brand

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

What the Brits have done is simply live up to their brand:  scrappy and strong, fiercely independent, confident beyond compare and utterly unique.

And let’s face it:  they didn’t leave Europe, they never joined it.  Their national mindset has always been one of apartness and singularity, their separation from the continent just as much a state of mind as the very real and cold physicality of the English Channel.

It is not trite but true:  they are an island unto themselves.  Perhaps they are naifs in our fundamentally evermore connected world – as rollercoastering financial markets, all around the globe, proved overnight and continue to demonstrate today.

But perhaps not.

Either way – because they’re perhaps the clearest, most consistent country brand in the world – we bloody well should have known.

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The Happiest Place on Earth

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

Disney’s tagline, The Happiest Place on Earth, is the world’s biggest, boldest brand promise.  

People come from all around the planet to experience that promise.  Especially families.  And even more especially, children – for whom there cannot possibly be a parental announcement more exciting than of an upcoming Disney cruise or theme park visit. 

Three days ago, Disney failed on its promise in the most unimaginably horrible way.

Two-year old Lane Graves of Nebraska was with his family, on the beach of a man-made lagoon inside Disney World in Orlando, watching the outdoor screening of a movie.  Lane was playing at the water’s edge.  An alligator appeared and dragged him to his death.  His father fought the animal to no avail.

I am not an alligator expert.  I look to reports from CNN and the Washington Post, which articulate that:

-Florida has more alligators, more than one million, than any other US state.

Floridians know that gators are a constant threat, and that extreme caution must be exercised when near almost any body of water.  “The danger is so ingrained in the general public that many small bodies of water lack posted warnings.”

-There were signs on the beach that said “No Swimming,” but there were no signs warning about alligators.

There has not been a fatal alligator attack at Disney World in the park’s 50 years of existence.

For me, the bottom line is this:  with the world’s biggest brand promise comes the world’s biggest responsibility to deliver on it.  Disney does not have an average, typical or normal level of responsibility to ensure the safety of its customers.  Instead, a higher standard applies, because it is a superlative proposition – happiest on earth – upon which the organization trades, to the point of building a behemoth valued at $160 billion and in the world’s top three media companies.

This higher standard would apply even if every one of their customers were from the state of Florida.  Which they are not.  Between 18% and 22% of the 52 million people who visit Disney World each year are from outside the United States.  That’s in the area of 10 million people – setting aside the surely even larger cohort that comes from other US states.  Put simply, Disney was built and thrives upon people who come from away.

These tourists, like Tyler and his family from the Midwest, cannot be expected to possess – to repeat, like every Floridian does – a hard-wired awareness that one must always beware of gators, especially near the water.  Their ignorance is even more understandable in the absence of explicit warning signs or messages on a man-made beach, on a man-made lagoon, on the grounds of the very organization – Disney – ­that has the world’s strongest reputation for delivering an unparalleled experience, one based on crossing every imaginable t and dotting every imaginable i.

Of doing everything imaginable to deliver happiness.

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

For my money, it was one of the best newspaper headlines ever written.  Anyone passingly familiar with the songs of the Tragically Hip will instantly recognize it as one of the band’s biggest hits, and anyone who has ever heard of Gord Downie – which is pretty much every Canadian, now – will instantly feel its bittersweet and profound depth of meaning.

Why is this headline so great?  Because it is so true.  And because it sums up an entire life, and the music of that life, and the joy that that music has brought into millions of other lives, in one word.

Continue reading

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Sophie Scares Us

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

Sophie’s crime?  Being popular.  And beautiful.  And articulate, stylish, pleasant, warm and giving.  

In sum, she has a strong personal brand, one that rubs some people the wrong way.  

Because she is Canadian, after all, in a country deeply conflicted about success.  

And she is merely a wife.

So here must be our new mission statement:  Keep Sophie down.  

How many administrative staff does she have?  Imagine, for a moment, nothing.  Nothing.

Now, add one to it.

There.  Now you have the total number of admin staff that Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has working for her.  Well, you may be saying, the increase from zero to one is in fact an infinite increase in staff, because zero is nothing.  And nobody, certainly not the unelected spouse of an elected, big-elbowed leader, deserves an infinite increase in staff (especially if I didn’t vote for him).  Do you think I can’t add or something?

Ditto for a 100% increase, from one body to two, which is what Sophie had the ridiculous temerity to ask for.

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These are the kinds of attitudes that keep a country small.  That keep its brand, being what people think of it, small.  And let’s not kid ourselves:  we don’t matter for nearly as much as we think we do.  Jeffrey Simpson has been the Globe and Mail’s top national affairs columnist since at least I was a teenager, and last week he wrote about an international “Best Countries” survey that placed Canada’s brand as #2 in the world.  As very strong on many dimensions including human rights, and as best in the world on quality of life.

But as Simpson reports, the survey also finds us to be “nowhere in having an international cultural impact [and] a terrible 3.1 out of 10 for being a world ‘leader.'”

And then Simpson says this:  “These and many other surveys of Canada’s small impact in the world, alas, will not change the citizens’ sense of Canada as a moral superpower.”

So true.  Canada’s high sense of self-regard is, on some dimensions, vastly disconnected from its brand as perceived by the rest of the world.  Could this be because we are not willing to do things that greatness requires?  Like nudging up spending on defence (in which we earned 0.5 points out of 10), an area in which Simpson points out we’re a well-known “free rider”?

Fine.  That is never going to happen. But how about spending somewhere, I would imagine, between fifteen and fifty thousand dollars a year on a second admin assistant for someone whose help the people of Canada are clamouring to acquire?  So she can say “yes” to as many as possible of the speaking requests that are pouring in, from charitable organizations hoping she will help raise money, so they can do their important work?

Or is she just too good for us?

PS See this excerpt from “The Hacking of Tall Poppy Sophie Grégoire Trudeau,” by the CBC’s Neil Macdonald:

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Joy at Indigo: Reisman’s Brand Reciprocity

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

All too often, customer service sucks.  Especially in Canada.  Recently I was reacquainted with this conviction after a particular restaurant experience – but instead of deciding to write on this topic again (see If You Don’t Like Customers…), I became determined to think of an organization that delivers a stellar customer experience, and write about them.

I did not have to ponder very long.  For when I think about brilliant customer experience, there is a name that comes to mind instantly, and it is Indigo.

In truth, I have not marvelled very long at how remark-ably friendly and courteous and helpful the staff are at Indigo, which positions itself as Canada’s largest book, gift and specialty toy retailer.  Or at how incredibly consistently this is the case (I cannot think of a single instance over my many years of going to their stores in which I felt let down).  Only in the past few years has the full quality of the experience truly registered with me, because the experience has always been so good:  the experience of being a customer at Indigo is like being a fish in water.

How do they do it, when so many others – most others – fail?  It’s because of this reciprocal relationship:  “Our commitment to adding joy to our customers’ lives makes Indigo a phenomenal place to work for our employees, as well.”  These are the words last week of Indigo Founder and CEO Heather Reisman, as she accepted recognition for her company from Randstad Canada as this year’s top employer brand in Canadian retail, and also as first in offering “a pleasant working atmosphere for employees.”

Note the phrase “adding joy to our customers’ lives” in Ms. Reisman’s remarks.  These words weren’t hastily cobbled together for the purposes of a press release.  They come directly from the Indigo Customer Promise, which you may recognize as being very much like a core purpose or why statement:  “We exist to add a little joy to our customers’ lives, each time they interact with us or our products.”

The Customer Promise is one element among four main brand foundation components – the others being a mission, vision and beliefs – found on the Indigo website.  Anyone can slap together some convincing language and paste it online, but it’s an entirely different thing to, like Indigo, actually live your brand day after day, year after year, by embedding it into the way you do business.

Three months ago I had the pleasure of a chat with Colleen Logan, the manager of Indigo’s flagship store at Bay and Bloor in downtown Toronto.  Colleen confirmed that great customer experience is absolutely no accident.  In her hiring process, she looks strictly for people who fit the brand foundation.  And – in a strong sign that Ms. Reisman has self-appointed as CBO and perpetuated brand discipline throughout the organization – especially for people who can deliver on customer joy.  Colleen says she can tell in the first couple of minutes.

Potential hires are run through a group audition process that includes a roleplay.  What specifically is she watching for?  “I look for people who are passionate and energetic.  And that truly want to be with people.  If you want to be in retail then you need to love the customer experience.  Without the customer, we wouldn’t have jobs.”

Obvious?  To most organizations, apparently not.  Making Reisman’s realization – that to receive, one must give – a great gift to branders everywhere.

Posted in brand culture, brand experience, brand foundation, consistency, internal branding, mission statements, mission/vision/values | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Earls: An Apology Well Done

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By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

Here’s something you probably didn’t know two weeks ago:  that Earls has been trying hard to serve only Certified Humane beef in its restaurants.

But now, in all likelihood, you do.  And that’s all the evidence we need to declare Earls’ brand “blunder” to be, in fact, a major victory.

That’s the upshot of what I told Paul Haavardsrud of CBC Radio One in an interview yesterday, available here on Dropbox (my bit starts at 1:55). 

As you know, two weeks ago Earls announced they would no longer serve Canadian beef – because Canada (said Earls) couldn’t produce enough that met the standard of Certified Humane.  Instead, Earls would source its beef from the US, which could provide enough of the good stuff.

Alberta farmers became, to put it mildly, rather upset.  They rallied on social media and called for a boycott.  And then yesterday, Earls president Mo Jessa released a video in which he gave an obviously authentic, heartfelt and unequivocal apology for turning his back on Canadian beef.  He said Earls would do everything in its power to get Canadian product back in its restaurants as soon as possible.

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It was a brand masterstroke.  For Earls is now clearly positioned as the Canadian leader when it comes to ethically sourced beef, an issue of rapidly increasing importance to consumers.  Provided they work in good faith with the Canuck cattle farmers to up the supply of Certified Humane, Earls can own the position over the very long term.

So how did they manage to make filet out of chuck?  And how did they manage not to blow this golden opportunity, as so many organizations would have?

It all comes down to these key components of an apology well done:

1.They apologized quickly. 

The farmers had organized on social media, yes, but at least they hadn’t had the time to blockade Earls’ restaurants with their tractors.  Taking too long to admit an error – or even denying that an error has been made (hello Chris Colabello) is one of the biggest mistakes a brand can make.

2.It wasn’t that big of a deal anyway. 

Well…this one might be pure luck.  Or great brand management.  Either way, Earls’ error just wasn’t that egregious in the first place.  In fact, it could easily be argued that Earls was trying to do something noble by pursuing the Certified Humane standard.

 3.They meant it.

President Jessa didn’t do one of these weasel-worded “if you were offended” routines.  From his words, and from his body language, it was easily apparent that he really did feel bad about it.

It’s a flip flop with fascinating effect.  Because ethically sourced beef was not, two weeks ago, a component of the Earls’ brand proposition.  Now it is – and the Earls brand stands for much more in May than it did in April.

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