The Big Picture

To Transform our Brands is to Transform Ourselves

The process of branding involves not only transforming our companies, but also transforming ourselves, and the extent to which we successfully embrace the challenges of our personal growth is reflected in the growth of our brands’ potential.

Be bold and prosper.


The Brand Strategy of Standing for Something

“You can tell what’s informing a society by what the tallest building is. When you approach a medieval town, the cathedral is the tallest thing in the place. When you approach an eighteenth-century town, it is the political palace that’s the tallest thing in the place. And when you approach a modern city, the tallest places are the office buildings, the centers of economic life.”
Joseph Campbell

The Power of Myth

As Joseph Campbell’s quote suggests, people are forever in search of inspiration and meaning, and the institutional source of those pursuits has shifted over the centuries. In the twenty first century, while churches struggle for attendance, lines of fervent worshippers wrap around the block at the Apple Store on new product launch days. The locus of what’s informing our society is business, and more specifically, brands.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was replaced by “Just Do It”.
Ask a young person what “True Religion” is and you’re likely to hear, “a jeans brand”.
Ask someone about “followers” and you’re likely to land in a conversation about Twitter.

There’s ample research to substantiate this notion of the convergence of brands and religiosity, and this insight itself can be the source of inspiration for building a more effective brand. Here are a few examples of brands  building stronger customer bonds by using ideas that were once the domain of spiritual teachings delivered in churches, synagogues, and mosques.

IKEA‘s homily on our over indulgence of the material world, and encouragement to return to the source of our truest happiness: our families.

Dodge reached into the Bible to pull on the soul and heartstrings of viewers in championing the values of their trucks’  most rooted customers.

Guinness, speaking of dedication, loyalty, and friendship, and how the choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.

No, Dorothy, branding isn’t in Kansas anymore.

So what can brands do to participate in this movement toward meaning?

A few thoughts:

1. Understand that at 10,000 feet, most companies’ and their competitors’ products are largely at parity, so focusing on feature and functional advantages is not the strongest differentiator—what a brand stands for and the meaning it confers to customers, is.

2. So how do we arrive at these branded messages of meaning? Hint: they typically aren’t found it in industry journals, seminars, or MBA programs—they’re found in quiet conversations and moments of personal reflection in our lives—in conversations with our children, friends, co-workers and loved ones about “what’s real”, “what’s truly worth believing in and caring about”—beyond material possessions.

3. Lastly, it requires having the courage to actually say something meaningful. There are many ways to move the awareness and revenue needle. The strategy of branding meaning aims to accomplish it by moving people’s hearts, and when done artfully and authentically, it can have a powerful effect on the brand and its customers. That said, as natural a human activity as advocating for people to be their most conscious best should be, actually doing it isn’t for sissies—standing for something real requires backbone.

Next steps? Am I encouraging brands to cast aside their traditional messaging and fully invest in the brand strategy of aligning with human meaning? No, this kind of approach is one best leavened with wisdom that often requires some evolution in a corporation’s level of consciousness. Start small, with an employee communique, a speech, a single branded asset like a brand video . . . try it on for size, see how customers and employees respond to it, and most importantly, observe how it makes you and your team feel about promoting substantive and meaningful messages, then build on that feeling.

Be bold and prosper.


Rick Julian is an award winning Creative Director and Brand Strategist at  QUO VADIS, a branding agency in Atlanta, GA.


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Dove Rant

Let’s make a deal Dove, advertising agencies will quit enhancing models when you quit:

1. Hiring them to groom your products’ brands in a way that’s a wee bit detached from the reality of their  benefit at a scientifically established physiological level.

2. Remove all colors and perfumes that mask the true look and smell of your product and its chemical constituents.

3. Featuring product photography that represents an idealized version of a pristine bar of soap vs. the dinged and dented bar that usually comes out of the box we purchase.

4. Using music in your videos that predisposes me to feel you’re warm and friendly, when in fact you’re a cubicle farm corporation populated by stressed, overworked, and often grumpy people like the rest of us.

5. Ironically hiring an agency to create a video about deceptive agency practices made by an agency who in the very act of making this video is practicing the deception of (subtextually) claiming it doesn’t practice such deception itself. (The mirror in a mirror effect of that fine sentence made me effin woozy.)

Look, i know we as a society run a head trip on women–we do it to men too, in ways that get far less attention.

As the father of a six-year old girl, I want her to grow up with a healthy body image, and exaggerated representations of beauty ideals isn’t helping. But honestly, this is what humans do and always have done since Neanderthals began dabbing colored mud on their faces.

And yes, i understand you’re just trying “to cultivate a conversation about our values”, but if we want to be truly consistent with this effort to “keep it real”, let’s ban all make-up, deodorant, perfume, mouthwash, Spanx, the slimming effects of black, contact lenses, push-up bras, whitening toothpastes . . . since they also mask the true reality of how women appear and smell.

But whatever we do, Dove, please stop perpetuating this farce that you’re above it all, when in fact all you’re really doing with this pseudo-moralizing is trying to sell us more damn soap.

Aside from these few quibbles, Ogilvy/Toronto, I really enjoyed your video.

Be bold and prosper.

-Rick Julian

Why "Farmer" Works

For me the Dodge Ram commercial, “Farmer”, walked away with the best spot of the Superbowl commercial competition. From its first frame through its last, it struck a chord that resonated with many viewers, and provides those of us in branding a number of good lessons. Here’s my deconstruction of what made it such effective work:

1. Intention
The poem was written by the late Paul Harvey for a speech he delivered to a Future Farmers of America convention in 1978. In it, he imagines farmers being God’s creation on the 8th day of the world–delivered to tend to all he had made.

There’s something nearly palatable about work that is inspired by noble intentions–it connects to parts of our humanity that lesser intentions fail to touch. In its sincerity, as a genuine expression of Mr. Harvey’s feelings for people, for their labor,  their sacrifice, and their commitment, he spoke to deep currents that course through our consciousness, and in doing so connected with us at a level that transcended our superficial consumer interests.

2. Simplicity
When cooking, if a chef has exquisite ingredients, the best advice is to let them sing–unburdened by unnecessary complexity and accoutrements. “Farmers” was arresting because of the artfully restrained preparation of its elements, and within the context of the multi-million dollar “all heat/no light” budgeted commercials that surrounded it, it achieved a distinctive presence during the evening.

By marrying Harvey’s sincerely delivered voice-over of his heartfelt poem with a collection of well-curated and beautifully shot still images, the commercial enabled the viewer to become absorbed with the words and photographs, and their slow and deliberate pacing provided excellent contrast to the flashy kinetic energy of the other spots that aired during the game.

3. Subtlety
Every viewer knows Superbowl commercials are very expensive, and the stakes for “winning” very high, with the winner being the brand whose name is most mentioned during and after the game. Toward that end, most commercials work very hard to overtly place their name and products so that their ownership of the commercial is clearly and memorably established.

In this light, the subtlety and naturalness of product placement of Dodge trucks, and the restrained use of brand name, only using it to punctuate the end of the spot, kept viewers fully invested in answering the question “whose commercial is this?” for its entire duration–a much more effective creative strategy than peppering the product and name with obvious placements throughout.

4. Courage

When’s the last time a national consumer brand used the word “God”  nine times in its voice-over in a national spot, never mind a spot on the biggest commercial stage of the year? I can’t think of a single one.

In its unabashed religiosity, it struck a (curiously) radical tone by fearlessly treading into what most brands would consider a minefield, and in doing so with such aplomb, further seared it into the audience’s consciousness.

For these and many other reasons, The Richards Group, who created it,  and Dodge, who had the wisdom to air it, prospered.
Because they were bold.

In Defense of Advertising

Rick Julian, Chief Creative Officer , QUO VADIS, looks ahead to 2013 with an appreciation of the role marketing and advertising play in our economy, and with a challenge for its practitioners to do what we do more honorably.

Here’s a link to the Bill Hicks video I mention. Warning–the language is very NSFW.

Tell Me a Story: The Art and Neuroscience of Storytelling

I heard a beautiful North American Indian quote last night

“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” 

and my immediate thought was–telling stories is what great brands do, and the reason is because it works– humans are hard-wired to use stories to communicate information effectively and memorably. At the level of our personal experiences we know this to be true: when you describe your life to another person, do you do a dry recitation of the facts, or do you weave those facts throughout a broader narrative that provides context–explaining why you moved from Point A to Point B, how you felt when you first met a significant person in your life, what your first apartment looked like, how your boyfriend smelled . . . ?

The degree to which we deliver messages as stories vs. laundry lists of facts is directly proportional to their effectiveness as conveyors of information.

Stories are the connective tissue between the facts of our brands’ product attributes, and regardless of your company, industry, or offering, you have a story that not only can be told, but should be told–not because it makes it will make you more engaging (it will) but because it will make your brand more effective–a more profitable one.

Here’s an interesting video about the neuroscience of storytelling:

Be bold and prosper.

–Rick Julian

Teeth! Hair! Feet!













This morning, Hugh Macleod at Gaping Void  sang the song that never ends in branding: the idea that mundane brand positioning can make you special in the eyes of your potential buyers.

Imagine writing a singles ad for your very best friend, and describing her as “covered with skin, has two eyes, and walks upright . . .”

Yaaay, a human!

If you wrote that ad, what kind of response would you expect your friend to get? What, you mean touting the most basic characteristics of all humans doesn’t make your friend seem special, or more importantly–don’t capture her most appealing qualities–the ones that make her a truly remarkable woman?

Branding your business is no different.

“Value, service, quality, efficiency, ‘our people make the difference’, ‘you come first’, low prices . . .” do not a brand make. Actually they do make a brand: a very generic and unmemorable one that blends in with the rest of your competition and underperforms. Truth is, though they aren’t always delivered, consumers expect all of these basic attributes from companies, so stating the obvious gives you no traction with them, and only ends up muddying the waters in your brandscape vs. clarifying your company’s unique position in it.

Your friend is wonderful and appealing because she once saw an old couple celebrating their 50th anniversary over a shared plate of tacos at a Mexican restaurant, and decided to send  a bottle of Champagn, a flan with a birthday candle, and the Mariachi band over to their table, then paid for it all. That’s what makes her special–not the fact that she maintains a body temperature of 98.6 degrees.

Your brand has a similar story to tell people–those sometimes not so obvious details about your product and service that truly define your value, and make people want to do business with you–that’s the song you need to sing.

Now go out and sing it.

Be bold and prosper.

–Rick Julian