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Laura Guzman, CEMBA '14

Laura Guzman, CEMBA '14

May 27 2013

Mad Men or Mad Science? Lessons in Branding from a Real Ad Man

As our first year of classes came to an end last weekend, we closed out Managerial Marketing with another exceptional guest presentation featuring Patrick Lafferty, a Cornell-Queens EMBA alum and exiting COO of the North American operations of famed advertising agency McCann Erickson (it went public just the day before that he would be moving on to take over as CEO of the North American operations of agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH)).

McCann Erickson has a long track record of creating building memorable brands. They are perhaps best known for the famous 1970’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad, as well as Loreal’s recognizable tagline “because you’re worth it”, and the Staples “easy button.”

Over the course of his career, Lafferty has personally had a hand in building many memorable brands too, from Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger, to the Travel Channel’s total brand transformation, to the powerful Army Strong campaign.

So he was well equipped to answer a typical EMBA question: why does branding matter, anyway?

Marketing 101

Taken straight out of the marketing textbooks, building a brand is essential to helping people make choices. As Lafferty emphasized, there is tons of stuff out there vying for our attention. Just walk into any grocery store.

“Ultimately it’s the ones who build the best brand that’s going to get reached for more than the others, whether that’s conscious or unconscious,” he said. “Finding the intersection between what people need or want and what you have to offer is the basic foundation of marketing.”

So if you’re competing with 20 other similar products, how can you make yourself stand out? What is the secret sauce of creating a great brand? 

When thinking of the creative process involved with advertising we can’t help but conjure images of Mad Men. But according to Lafferty, successful branding as much a science as it is an art.  The process relies on constant research, hypothesizing, testing, tracking, and evaluating.

Yet this is all to often forgotten.

A formula for success

So for those who aspire to embrace the both the science and art of branding, Lafferty imparted a few key strategies:

1.    Every brand starts with insights and data. You have to know your consumers, how the competition factors in, and every aspect of your company from the inside out. Armed with that insight you can identify where you fit in.

“You have to apply the science,” urged Lafferty. “Never take out the art, but you have to have the foundation of the science to enable the art. Without the science part you will not succeed.”

2.    You don’t have to be a big sexy brand like Apple or Nike to be a great brand. These market lessons don’t just apply to the elite; they can work for even the most seemingly ordinary of brands in mundane categories.

“Stop envying the sexy brands and become one,” Lafferty advised, giving the example of Nature Valley granola bars as a case in point.

3.    It’s not just about a quirky mascot or catchy ad; it’s about the entire brand experience. It starts with having a good product, plus every experience that happens around a customer’s interaction with the product and even the company itself.

“All the experiences matter,” said Lafferty. “That’s the biggest mistake companies can make is not connecting the dots.”

4.    Build brand evangelists. It’s an extremely powerful strategy if you can find ways to get people to really have passion for your brand. Heck, people have tattooed Tony the Tiger on their arm and named their kid “Espn” (after the sports channel) – that’s brand dedication!

Of course, there are less extreme examples. Consider John Deere: die-hard Deere fans can literally bring the brand into their homes with everything from kids’ toys to branded shower curtains.

 “These are pretty powerful things that brands convince people to do that people buy into,” said Lafferty. “Never underestimate the power of brand.”

5.    The real secret weapon is your people. Getting all the people in your organization behind the brand will multiply your efforts exponentially. That means investing as much in internal marketing as external to ensure your own people understand the brand, believe in what you’re trying to achieve. Then empower them to act as spokespeople.

 “Employees have much more to offer than we allow them to offer,” said Lafferty. “Un-tap the people in your organization… if they’re living [the brand] that will just be a snowball effect that you can’t replicate.”

A dash of luck

It can’t be denied that there is an element of luck involved when it comes to building a successful brand. Think the Food Network. They happened to make a lot of the right business decisions at just the moment the “food culture” began to take off in the U.S.  Who would have thought it wouldn’t be considered lame to spend hours on end watching marathons of Chopped and Iron Chef America?

Yet had they not had some of the key strategies and the organizational leadership in place to support their efforts, would it have turned out the same way? Not likely. 

Bottom line: while branding isn’t completely black and white – something I know many of my classmates, particularly the finance and operations people, found a bit difficult to accept – it is an essential ingredient in the recipe for building a successful business.

Chew on that next time you buy a certain box of cereal or pair of shoes.  

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