identity strategy Tag

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Has Lost Its Brand

Although we understand the critical importance of trademarks in preventing others from profiting from your intellectual property, we are disappointed in the move by Delaware North to try to extract $51 million from the National Park Service for a shortlist of iconic location names in Yosemite Park. To us, Delaware North is holding these properties for ransom from the American people, for a few historic names that will have little to no value anywhere else.

Let’s back up a minute – last year, Delaware North lost the contract to run hotels and concessions at Yosemite National Park. Shortly thereafter Delaware filed suit, claiming that the Park Service (or its new contracted vendor) no longer has the right to use the familiar and iconic names of historic park facilities (Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Park, Badger Pass, the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, and Wawona Hotel). It turns out the Park service had never trademarked the names, so Delaware North took advantage of the situation and trademarked them themselves. Rather than pay a ransom to use the names, The Park Service has agreed to create new names for the facilities.

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Great Branding Starts with a Promise

Recently in Fast Company Design, I read an article that claims “great branding is invisible,” and goes on to make the point that the little details, like the satisfying thunk of a closing BMW door, or the stitching in a Gucci purse, create and reinforce our relationships with great brands.

The article also makes the point that a catchy tagline or attention-getting logo is relatively unimportant in establishing that brand relationship in the first place.

I agree with these observations, but there’s something missing. Thoughtful details – the “invisibles” that create great brand experiences – are only meaningful if they come from a unique and meaningful central promise. What do you aim to provide that nobody else can? Why does it matter? If you don’t have an answer to these core questions, all those details have no center of gravity. They become tactics that can be easily copied and commoditized.

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Lessons on Being (and Staying) No. 1

Lessons on Being (and Staying) Number OneAt Marshall Strategy we’re fortunate to work with many clients who are ranked No. 1 in their fields. These range from Caltech (No. 1 on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings  for the last three years) to Google (No. 1 in search) to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (the No. 1 rehabilitation hospital in the U.S. for 23 straight years).

Many of these companies enjoy status as household names. What unites them, and what lessons can others learn from them?

Congrats on Being No. 1: Now, How Do You Stay There?
In some respects, you might expect our client roster to be made up of companies that are struggling. After all, aren’t they the ones who need the most help?

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Brand Positioning: What to Convey vs. What to Say

Jean-Claude Van Damme does the splitsWhen it comes to positioning and messaging, there’s a fundamental distinction between “the idea” and “the message.”

We sometimes work with clients who come to us for positioning help, but then ask us to tell them what to say as their message. This typically happens after we’ve worked together to drill down what their complex organization does into a single, compelling idea. We’ve helped them articulate who they are, what they do and why they matter to their critical audiences, and it’s at this point where they run into trouble. We hear comments such as, “this positioning statement doesn’t just roll off the tongue.” Our clients are hoping they can take the positioning statement we’ve given them and simply drop it as messaging language into communication material. It doesn’t work like that.

Positioning vs. Copy
The position of your company sets you apart from everyone else. Used strategically, positioning should be the foundation for the messaging and communication that comes next, such as taglines and tactical advertising slogans. Positioning is internal and timeless—it is what you want to convey holistically, not what you literally say in each communication piece.

The message you then put forth should reflect your position and target the key opportunities and audiences you want to address. If every message comes from a common conceptual foundation and engages with its target audience in relevant ways, the effect of the brand will be greater than just the sum of its parts.

A good example of this is when Volvo Trucks wanted to highlight the precision and dynamics of Volvo Dynamic Steering in 2013. Volvo produced a memorable commercial featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits between two moving semitrailer trucks. Volvo is famously positioned around safety; the ad effectively conveyed both the company’s positioning and the key point they wanted their customers to understand using inspired, memorable imagery.

Tips for a successful positioning/messaging relationship

  • Treat your positioning as your galvanizing idea. Once you’ve identified what you want to convey, you can take creative latitude to express it based on specific communication needs.
  • Don’t use positioning as your communication boilerplate. You should always be thinking of what you want your audience to understand, instead of simply looking for language you can plug in.

When used effectively, positioning and messaging takeaways are the litmus test for brand communications. They help guide communications—they are the key ideas, not the literal words.

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Think Big: Understanding the Value of Strategic Ambiguity

Whether we’re working on corporate identity, positioning strategy or naming, there’s a term we often use in our work with most clients: Strategic Ambiguity.

Whether we’re working on corporate identity, positioning strategy or naming, there’s a term we often use in our work with most clients: Strategic Ambiguity. It helps clients understand the need to find balance between being highly specific or overly vague in what it is they stand for and how they want to be perceived.

Strategic ambiguity, as organizational communication expert Eric Eisenberg defines it, enables a company to express itself—its mission and goals—in a way that allows “the freedom to alter operations which have become maladaptive over time.”

By being strategically ambiguous, companies who encounter turbulent times in the future can maintain a firm grasp on their identity and goals while embracing change. For our clients, this is key to staying relevant.

How Does Strategic Ambiguity Work?
Eisenberg notes that when air travel replaced sea travel from the United States to Europe, cruise lines survived only because they rebranded themselves as entertainment and hospitality facilities. This broader self-identifier allowed companies to provide new services, such as pleasure cruises and activities on boats that never even leave the dock. Because the cruise industry didn’t pigeonhole itself as a method of transportation, it survived and has since flourished.

In another industry affected by technological change, at least one company failed to identify the opportunity that strategic ambiguity allowed it. At its heart, Eastman Kodak was a chemical company in the business of making and selling film. As technologies changed and digital transformed how we create and consume images, Kodak didn’t evolve to think of itself more broadly. Had Kodak zoomed out and seen itself as a leader in the imaging industry, its future (and current unfortunate reality) may have looked very different.

Taking advantage of strategic ambiguity isn’t a matter of creating a formula, and it takes work. Finding the right balance is a step we help many clients take, and it’s part of what I love about our work. We help our clients make sometimes difficult choices and develop consensus on where their organizations are headed.

Achieving the Best Results
Three tips for applying strategic ambiguity:

  • Know the difference between being ambiguous and being strategic about your ambiguity. When naming and/or positioning your company, you can’t say, “Well, we don’t want to limit ourselves, so we’re going to try to be all things to all people.” You are not all things to all people—and you won’t succeed if you try to be.
  • Make choices. Strategic ambiguity is about drawing lines, and it requires a strong identity strategy. It’s more about who you are and why you matter than about what you’re doing right now. If you can commit to what you stand for, that commitment will actually allow for more flexibility when you’re confronted with change.
  • Think about the possibilities. Find ways to explore what you do now in different contexts and from new perspectives. This will help prepare you to make decisions about where and how you’ll allow yourself to grow and evolve over time.

If you hang your hat on what you do best right now, understand that people will continue to perceive you that way—a year, five years or 10 years from now.

So think big. Just not too big.

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If They Know What You Stand For, Your Consumers Will Love You (and Your Brand)

HeartIn the news last month were the results of a recent study that reveals the world’s 100 most loved companies. The top three brands? The Walt Disney Company, Yahoo! and Google. The study surveyed 70,000 people in 15 countries and measured individuals’ emotional feelings toward a brand. While we’re happy to see several of our past clients on the list, the study poses a great question: How can a company establish enough emotional connectivity to create familiarity and favorability among its audiences?

A company can’t be familiar to, or loved by its customer base if it isn’t true to itself. If familiarity breeds favorability, this might make a good argument to push for a higher marketing spend. But a more fundamental (and less expensive) way to improve and sustain familiarity is to be coherent and consistent in how you tell your story. Customers are people. People trust what they know.

Creating a Trustworthy, Intriguing Brand
Three steps to becoming a familiar and favored brand:

  1. Know who you are. Build a strong identity strategy and you will have a clear mission. Your employees will understand what they’re a part of and your customers will be able to identify with the choices you make. Our founder and CEO Philip Durbrow points out that everyone from the gardeners to the guy who plays Goofy could give a solid yes or no on whether something’s really “Disney” or not.
  2. Walk the talk. If there is a disconnect between what you proclaim yourself to be and how your customers experience you, your brand will cease to be appealing or trustworthy. All the marketing dollars in the world won’t solve this problem.
  3. Find the balance. Once you have an established following, you have to decide how to walk the line of remaining familiar while innovating and evolving as an organization. One of our recent SlideShare presentations, “How to Create a Valuable Company,” demonstrates that a company can be both solid and reliable and dynamic and innovative.

Seeing Success
Many brands struggle to connect with their customers and create favorability because they never take the time to assess what they stand for. One study points out that, more than familiarity just leading to favorability, it leads to behaviors that support companies’ strategic goals. Word-of-mouth marketing, investment referrals—these help companies grow and succeed, and they are more likely to happen for organizations that tell a clear and honest story about who they are.

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The ROI of Identity

ROI
Can thinking strategically about identity translate into bottom line results? Our experience is that it can. The benefits of identity projects—such as greater employee satisfaction, increased clarity of purpose and a stronger culture—have been shown to correlate with improved corporate performance. Some authors have suggested that these cultural aspects can account for a difference of 20% to 30% in corporate performance.

Identity and the Bottom Line
Corporations consider identity projects for a number of reasons:
• They want to increase awareness
• They want to enhance perceptions of their company
• They want to eliminate malaise and have higher-performing teams
• They want to position themselves in a way that’s more compelling for the times they’re living in

But what’s the real reason underpinning all these efforts? Simple. Companies want to increase sales. They want to increase profits, shareholder value and market capitalization. Our clients understand that by working on identity they are actually addressing their bottom line.

So how should you look at the potential ROI of identity work?

How Identity Increases Value
The long-term ROI of communications efforts are hard to quantify. But by clarifying what the company is and what people can expect from it, identity strategy has the potential to engage and motivate employees as well as capture the attention of customers, shareholders and funders.

For example, we might have a client with $10 billion in sales who is currently suffering from numerous symptoms of identity problems: The company isn’t well understood, people aren’t attracted to it, employees aren’t happy and leaders are spending so much time putting out fires they’re not able to set a course for the future.

We go in and fix that. Now everything’s firing on all cylinders and there’s a new excitement about the company, its products and services and its people. This new energy and shared purpose takes the management burden from executives, freeing them to lead. Employees require less management, because the company’s purpose is clearer and what’s required of them is better understood. From a change like that you might expect anywhere from a 1% to 10% increase in sales. But even a one-tenth percentage point increase in sales will be a return of $10 million in added revenues every year.

I believe there’s nowhere else that you can get return like that. Legendary investor Warren Buffett buys companies with strong identities for a reason: They represent a future stream of revenue he can count on. Identity is an investment that pays multiple dividends.

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