When it comes to telling a compelling brand story, nothing is more powerful (or more effective) than letting your customers do the talking.
That’s exactly what Patagonia has been doing for three decades.
Every year, customers send more than 80,000 photographs of themselves doing the things they love—wearing Patagonia gear.
And the results are stunning.
Rock climbers. Tree sitters. Alpine skiers. Hikers. Wild-life.
Thousands of photos taken in places with crazy names like: Suicide Rock, The Thrill is Gone, and The Asylum.
A recent issue of the catalog featured stories of failure—written by climbers who got tantalizingly close to a summit, only to have to quit climbing before reaching the top. Sometimes it really is about the journey (though not always by choice).
And between the customer stories are photos and descriptions of the gear that makes it all possible.
Customer photos and stories featured on the home page and blog.
And a microsite called the Tin Shed (harking back to the shed in which Patagonia first opened) where you can see even more photos, watch video, and hear audio from customers like Maxime Turgeon who rode his bike 770 miles around the Alps looking for new climbing routes to try.
Or check out the story of Fletcher Chouinard and several others who visit the Mentawai Islands off the coast of Sumatra to test their new surf boards.
There’s some really good stuff here.
Patagonia gets bonus points for its “Spread the Shed” feature which makes it easy to tweet, email, dig, and otherwise share these incredible stories.
The most important part of these stories is that they aren’t about Patagonia at all. No talk about the triple stitching or waterproofing of the jacket a person is wearing. Or the unique cut of a fleece liner.
Just aspirational images and stories about what their customers love to do.
And by retelling these stories in their marketing materials, Patagonia shows their customers that they get it.
They are a natural part of their customer’s world. A brand they can trust.
The reality is that customers often tell the story better than the marketing department. So why not let them?
This small company is doing a lot of things right.
The cycling world is notoriously competitive. The market leader, Trek, sucks up a lot of media attention (thanks in no small part to Lance Armstrong). And there are literally dozens of competitors fighting for the rest of the market: BMC, Felt, Colnago, Schwinn, Cannondale, Ibis, Klein, Lemond, Time, Merckx, Cervelo, Orbea, Pinarello, Scott, Seven, Litespeed, Specialized, Bianchi—the list goes on.
So how does a new start up compete against all these established brands?
Here are a few of the things Madsen is doing right:
Start with a remarkable product.
Rather than creating yet another look-alike road or mountain bike, company founder Jared Madsen focuses on an entirely different category—the cargo bike or bucket bike.
It looks totally different. Almost unexpected.
There’s a good chance you’ve never seen anything like it.
You want to say to the person next to you, “Check that out.”
It’s not just the look. Jared has introduced a lot of unique features you won’t find on other bikes—a massive bucket for hauling groceries or kids, an attached, automatic lock so you never worry about security, and originally designed components like the long stem that helps the bike ride more comfortably.
In part, because of its unique design, Madsen cycles has been featured in several publications, most recently Outside Magazine.
It’s a truly remarkable bike.
Find a new, unique market.
Madsen Cycles doesn’t make bikes for hard-core racers or mountain bikers. Instead, this is a commuter bike. It’s the perfect bike for a mom running errands around the neighborhood or a dad wanting to take the kids out for a spin.
That doesn’t mean that hard-core bikers don’t want one. They do, as a second bike to tool around town on.
Madsen Cycles makes bikes, but they don’t worry too much about Trek and other big manufacturers (yet) because they don’t make those bikes.
Madsen Cycles has a great story.
Jared, a bike lover and engineer, had the idea that his bike could be doing more. After seeing European bikes with a large bucket on the front, he bolted a wheel-barrow bucket to the front of his bike and started riding around the neighborhood. But he didn’t like the awkward center of gravity, so he moved the bucket to the back and started building prototypes. It didn’t take long before other people wanted one and soon he was making them for everyone. Read more here.
Madsen uses a very consistent look and feel.
Check out Madsen’s website. If you knew nothing else about the company, you would likely assume that this is a much bigger business that it actually is.
They’ve invested in a professional design for their logo and website and use a professional photographer to take pictures of their products. They’ve also invested a lot of time and effort into creating an attractive booth for use at tradeshows and expos. They could have skimped on these things and gotten by, but the attention to detail shows through in the quality of their communications.
The result is a brand identity that is consistent and likeable.
They use social media to get the word out.
Madsen can’t afford a full-page placement in Bicycling Magazine, and it’s doubtful that their customers read Bicycling anyway.
Instead, they rely on word of mouth from their customers. And they seed those conversations with updates and videos on their blog, at YouTube, on Facebook and Twitter.
Their videos smartly feature Jared talking about what makes a Madsen different and point out many of the unique features you get with a Madsen Cycle that other bikes don’t offer. They are simple and effective. Here’s an example (more here).
Madsen has also sponsored several events to show-off their products and introduce their bikes to new audiences.
The Madsen Cycle Link Contest
To encourage their customers and fans to spread the word about Madsen, they run a contest every year. When fans post a new link from their websites or blogs back to Madsen, they are entered to win a new bike (they’re not exactly cheap, so this is a great prize). Not only does this spread the word, but it provides link-backs to their website which helps with their organic search rank. The company even provides several banner ads of different sizes to make it as easy as possible for customers to spread the word. Like this one:
Some day Madsen Cycles may be a big company with all the advantages of big budgets, lots of employees, and operational efficiencies. But for now, they’re a small company doing a lot of things right.
What can you take from their experience?
Full disclosure: Though I haven’t done any work for Madsen Cycles, I consider Jared a friend and have had the pleasure of riding along side him (or more truthfully, way behind him) on several morning rides. And I want a Madsen.
Groupon is a great idea and a very successful company. In a little more than a year, it has grown to more than $400 million in revenues. It has local websites offering deals in more than 100 U.S. cities from Akron to Winnipeg and more than 20 other countries. Hundreds of thousands of customers subscribe to their daily email. Thousands more check their website every day. And the daily deals often sell out. 35,000 businesses are on the waiting list to be featured.
Despite the fact that the company employs 70 writers, I am seriously underwhelmed with the quality of the writing. There is no consistency from day to day. No “brand voice”. And the copy is often trite or down right silly.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Groupon. I’ve discovered a delicious new pizza place in my neighborhood and saved hundreds of dollars on photography thanks to them. I just can’t get worked up about such mediocre copy. Here are a couple of examples:
Today’s Deal in Las Vegas (for a hair salon) reads:
“If hair could talk, it would have a mouth, transforming stylish head wraps into cruel mufflers and skinny headbands into orthodontia. Today’s Groupon gives hair a voice without the expensive dental upkeep…”
If hair could talk, it would have a mouth? That’s good writing? Someone call the good folks at Bulwer-Lytton.
Here’s today’s deal in Vancouver for a Chinese restaurant:
“At some point, every country builds a Great Wall to keep the secret of their cuisine from spreading to foreign nations, only to find that the real wall lies in their heart. Tear down the Great Wall of painful secrets with today’s Groupon…”
Huh? How many countries have built a wall only to find the real wall in their heart? To protect their cuisine? And what in the world does that have to do with Szechuan noodles?
Here’s a Groupon offer, I received the other day:
“When applied correctly, cosmetics can enhance the beauty of one’s natural features and advertise one’s crush when written in lipstick on one’s forehead…”
And here’s the first line of today’s deal in San Diego:
“Until the personal watercraft was invented, mankind’s only hope for outdoor fun involved hitting candied hams with tree branches.”
Is this something people do? What does that even mean?
I could go on.
Sorry to break it to you Andrew, but this writing is just not good. It’s trying too hard to be clever. Most of it just sounds lame. Or confusing. Or worse.
If you want to see how good copy is done, check out Woot!
Woot! has a consistent, often literary, brand voice. It doesn’t matter what day you check in, you get the feeling one person is writing for the brand. The writing is always entertaining, sometimes silly, often funny, and very, very consistent.
While Groupon’s writing is mediocre at best, it does other things phenomenally well.
Their headlines are simple and brilliant. Each day’s deal is spelled out so clearly, the customer knows exactly what they’ll get and what they will save. Some examples:
Today’s Deal: $50 for $125 worth of Designer Denim and Apparel at National Jean Company.
Today’s Deal: $89 for Two-hour Jet-Ski Rental from Action Sports.
Today’s Deal: $10 for $20 Worth of Tasty Comfort Food and Authentic New Orleans Fare at Magnolia Grill.
The “Time Left to Buy” counter on each page is genius. It creates urgency and demands you make your purchase decision right now. If you forget to come back later, you miss out on the deal, so you better buy now.
The requirement for a minimum number of buyers does the same thing. It forces customers to opt in early to ensure enough people get in on the deal for it to be “on”.
The stock photography is almost always good: delicious food, relaxing spas, attractive models. It’s hard not to want what Groupon is selling.
And once you decide to buy, Groupon makes it easy with a huge Buy! button you simply can’t miss.
There are a lot of reasons Groupon has been a phenomenal success. But let’s be honest. Good writing, at least so far, isn’t one of them.
And that’s a pretty good description for the best known abstract impressionist, the artist who created dozens of paintings that made people in museums around the world say, “My seven-year-old could have painted that.”
He painted the most expensive painting ever sold at auction—a work of art titled #5, valued at $140 million in 2006 (pictured to the left).
Jackson Pollock painted by dripping, flipping, and throwing paint onto the canvas. At one point, he numbered his paintings, rather than naming them, to keep viewers from reading any unintended meaning into his work.
Pollock’s technique makes for some beautiful paintings, but others are messy and intentionally confusing. Of his work, Mr. Pollock said,
“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.”
Today, many brand owners take a “Jackson Pollock Approach” to managing their brands. They drip, flip, and throw different ideas, strategies, and messages at the canvas and go with whatever sticks.
They are inconsistent in using colors and design. They speak with more than one voice. They change experiences and products on a whim.
Like Pollock, the are unaware of what they are doing in the moment.
The result is something like abstract impressionism. There’s no clear idea to understand or remember. No take away for the consumer.
This is the path to brand failure.
Unfortunately, in order to succeed in a crowded marketplace, there is no ‘get acquainted period’ where a brand can find its voice.
All of the individual pieces of your brand (product design, business card, pricing strategy, website, invoice, user experience, customer service, email, packaging, etc.) must work to produce a consistent message— a recognizable, memorable, and likeable story for your brand. From the beginning.
Jackson Pollock was a brilliant artist. His approach worked well for painting, but is a disaster for creating a brand.
The painting above is untitled, painted in 1949. Jackson Pollock died on this day, 54 years ago.
Taglines are like logos. Just about every brand has one. And consumers tend to remember only the very best ones.
Do you recognize these?
“How well do you share?”
“We Want You to Live.”
Those taglines were used by Ricoh, Bank of America, Volvo, and Mobil.
And they are bad.
They don’t say anything. They don’t relate to the brand’s story. And they aren’t aspirational. Like most taglines, they seem to be an after thought or a too-simple restatement of the brand strategy.
I imagine that the creative team working on the Ricoh tagline had a brief that talked a lot about how Ricoh makes document sharing easy. Hence the tagline. It addresses the needs of the brief, but doesn’t seem to mean much to the consumer.
So how do you make sure the tagline you use is great? Do one of these four things:
1. Great taglines tell a story.(If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you knew this was coming.)
My favorite tagline of all time was used by Avis: We Try Harder. It echoed the story told by the advertising that since Avis wasn’t the largest car rental agency, they had to work harder to earn your business. So the cars were cleaner. The gas tank was full. The attendant was nicer. They couldn’t afford not to do the right thing. And the tagline echoes that story. Brilliant.
Other great taglines that tell a story: American Express: Don’t Leave Home without It. Apple: Think Different. Timex: Takes a Lickin’, and Keeps on Tickin’. GE: We Bring Good Things to Life.
2. Great taglines are aspirational.
The most famous tagline of all is probably Nike’s Just Do It. It’s easy for the consumer to relate to this idea—no matter what “it” is. Ever wondered if you can run a marathon? Nike gives you permission to Just Do It.
Other great taglines that are aspirational: The few, The Proud, The Marines. Virginia Slims: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. U.S. Army: Be All You Can Be.
3. Great taglines emphasize a point of difference.
The best example of this kind of tagline probably belongs to M&M’s: They Melt in Your Mouth, Not in Your Hands. Unlike other chocolate treats, M&M’s has a candy shell so they didn’t melt quickly and make a mess when poured into warm hands. No other chocolate candy could make that claim. It is unique to one brand.
Other great taglines that emphasize a point of difference: Papa John’s: Better Ingredients, Better Pizza. BMW: The Ultimate Driving Machine. Miller Lite: Tastes Great, Less Filling. Bounty: The Quicker Picker-Upper.
4. Great taglines often emphasize the brand name.
If you grew up in the Seventies or Eighties, you probably remember the television commercials with the tagline “When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen.” There were several versions including school children, business men at the airport, and this one:
Okay, so the execution is a little campy. But the tagline is memorable and repeats the company name. It’s almost impossible NOT to remember it.
Other great taglines that emphasize the brand name: Have a Coke and a Smile. See the USA in Your Chevrolet. You’re in Good Hands with Allstate.
And of course, if you can find an idea that does all four, you’ve got a truly great tagline.
Mastercard’s Priceless campaign and tagline is a good example of this.
It re-iterates the story told in the advertising.
It claims a point of difference.
It emphasizes the brand name.
“There are some things money can’t buy, for everything else, there’s Mastercard.”
The latest edition of Inc Magazine has a great article by Jason Fried (founder of 37 Signals and author of Rework) on “Business Writing” which he describes as “bad, boring, and barely read.” When I saw the headline, I thought the article was about memos, email, and what is typically thought of as business writing. It’s not.
Although he doesn’t call it this, Jason is talking about brand voice—communicating a personality through the text used by a brand. And he is right that most companies do it very, very poorly. From the article:
“If you care about your product, you should care just as much about how you describe it. In nearly all cases, a company makes its first impression on would-be customers or partners with words—whether they’re on a website, in sales materials, or in e-mails or letters. A snappy design might catch their attention, but it’s the words that make the real connection. Your company’s story, product descriptions, history, personality—these are the things that go to battle for you every day. Your words are your frontline. Are they strong enough?”
Jason goes on to describe three companies that do brand voice the right way—Woot, Saddleback Leather, and Polyface. Of course, they aren’t the only ones who do it right, but they are among the few. In fact, a good argument can be made that without their unique voices as expressed in the company’s copywriting, you would never have heard about any of the companies that Mr. Fried writes about.
Their unique voices makes all the difference. Check out the article here. It’s worth the read.
People have been writing about the greatness of Apple’s advertising since about 1984. These days Apple does a brilliant job of speaking to its customers in a unique and consistent voice—no matter what the product (and the voice differs depending on the product and audience). The iTunes/iPod campaign features people dancing with their iPods and reckless abandon. The “I’m a Mac” campaign is both fun and funny, pointing why Macs are better than PCs.
But the big winner for effectiveness in advertising is the iPhone campaign. Here’s why:
1. Beautiful product shots. The only thing you see in this campaign is a hand, or hands, holding a iPhone. That’s it. Of course, the iPhone is used to conjure up maps, photos, games, music and anything else the narrator talks about. But what we see is a well-designed iPhone on a plain white background.
2. Product demonstrations. Notice the ads don’t ever say, “Buy an iPhone” or “The iPhone will make your life better.” There are no promises. Just a simple, compelling demonstration designed to make the viewer think, “Wow, if it’s that simple to do all those things, maybe I should get one.” By changing up the demonstration in each ad (but not the product shots), you quickly see how versatile the iPhone is. Interestingly, the iPhone doesn’t do a whole lot of things you couldn’t do before, it just does them more easily from the palm of your hand.
3. Story. Give yourself a gold star if you saw this one coming. Every 30 second ad is a short story. Whether it’s the story of the person who found and adopted a dog, or the story of the backpacker who went to Spain, or the story of the guy who missed the train. And the hero of every story is the phone. It helps find missing reports, and book hotels, and post photos online, and makes the airport check-in process easy. Each story is nothing less than a testimonial about how the phone has improved someone’s life. The viewer is left to assume the phone can make their life better too.
This is a campaign that could run for a very long time. As long as there are useful aps to demo and human interest stories to build the demos around, there will be content for more iPhone ads.
You can watch all the stories in this campaign, here.
But there are brands that do it well (at least for awhile). Apple. Mini Cooper. The Economist. Every time you see a marketing effort for one of these brands, it’s as if it were created by the same person that did the last one. Different execution, same voice.
How do they do it where others fail?
Finding the right brand voice requires two things. First you have to know exactly who your consumer is. If your target market is “everyone” you will never have a brand voice that stands out. You’ll sound just like everyone else targeting everyone. Second, you need an almost fascist dedication to consistency over time. It also helps to work with a good writer.
One brand that did it exceptionally well from 1997 until 2005 was Miller High Life. In a category of cheap jokes masquerading as ads, it is clear that the MHL brand team understood exactly who they were talking to—men. Real men. Not college boys who greet each other by saying, “Wazzup,” a dozen times. Men who could appreciate skills like backing up a boat trailer.
Men who weren’t worried about their diets.
Men who don’t cheat.
A terrific example of a brand voice (not just Doug Jeffer’s voice overs, but also the writing, the photography, the subject matter) used consistently over eight years to reinforce a strong brand story.
This entry was originally posted on January 25, 2007 at the old Brandstory blog (link available for a limited time). Of everything I wrote at the old blog, this entry got the most enthusiastic comments. I’ve added some of them at the bottom of the post—sorry I could not port the links to the writers who posted them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about brand voice lately. How companies talk to their customers. What brands sound like. How they read.
I’m not just talking about how a brand sounds to the ear, though that is important for products that communicate with broadcast media: think Tom Bodette and Motel6 or Hal Riney (who voiced Reagan’s famous Bear Ad) and Bartles & James.
There are lots of examples of companies that consistently use identity design to reinforce their brands, but far fewer brands seem to give as much thought to the voice of their communications. Mini does it exceptionally well, across all mediums. The Economist and Apple too. Harley Davidson does a pretty good job (there are exceptions). Saturn used to have unique voice—before it was assimilated.
Try googling “Brand Standards.” There are dozens of examples of identity guidelines showing how to use official logos, fonts, and colors. But very little attention is paid to brand voice—the words, phrases, and characteristics that set a brand apart take a back seat to the more “important” visual aspects of the brand.
Why is this? I have a theory. As we grow up and attend school, most of us “learn” that we are not good artists—that is, we can’t draw much beyond doodles. Bureaucrats think of art classes as luxuries, and cut funding because they are not as important as the standard reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Writing on the other hand is more universal. Very few people learn they can’t write in the same way they learn they can’t draw. Regardless of whether you are good at it, writing is required for most classes from math to English, debate to biology. So most of us grow up thinking we write relatively well (even though we probably don’t). Certainly well enough to communicate.
So we don’t trust ourselves with the design of marketing and other important business materials. We hire professionals for that. And we create brand standards to help us when the designer isn’t there. But we do trust ourselves to write effectively enough to get our point across, even though we don’t have the training to create a brand voice. So we create copy. Lots of it. Most of it bad.
Even many copywriters don’t think about copy the way designers think about design—tweaking a few words here, cutting a phrase there, rewriting a paragraph over and over until it sounds just right. And that’s too bad, because when done right, the brand voice is the most difficult part of branding to copy. You can’t fake it.
Have you seen a brand standard recently that includes direction on the brand voice? How well is it followed? Does your business use a unique voice to tell your brand story? Let me know in the comments.
Read a little more about brand voice here.
More thoughts (video) about the failure of our schools to teach creativity by Sir Ken Robinson, here. I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch this very funny, very insightful video.
Some of the original comments:
Larry Fahey: Good God, it’s like you’re INSIDE my head. I’m a copywriter and brand strategy guy, and this is it in a nutshell: Everyone thinks they can write. When’s the last time you saw a client come in and take the mouse from a designer to fix up a design? Never. But they rewrite copy at will. I wish I had a nickel for every time a client has told me “no one reads the copy anyway.”
I’m a cynic at heart, but if I wasn’t, I would say there’s a bright side: The smart agency (or client) can find a real advantage over competitors by paying attention to the finer points of copy. In a world filled with terrible copy, great brand copy could be a real edge. That is, if you can find a good brand copywriter. Big “if.”
Agent A: We spend so long trying to explain this to clients. Completely agree that it may be a perspective that’s nurtured though. I was in an ad agency recently, and even their own account handling people referred to the “creative” and “the copy” as being separate elements.