As the term ‘geek’ has evolved, so has its business application. Katy McCarthy, CEO of ThinkGeek, the leading eCommerce brand for the geek in all of us, shares her insight on balancing growth with authenticity and the impact of ThinkGeek’s acquisition by GameStop. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Katy McCarthy: My challenge and our challenge was to ensure that while being authentic and remaining very true to the core, we were also being very inclusive.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Super excited about today’s interview with Katy McCarthy. Katy is the CEO of ThinkGeek. I think the title at this point is CEO ThinkGeek at GameStop. ThinkGeek was acquired in late July by GameStop and Katy’s going to tell you over the next couple of minutes some of the things that have changed and some of the things that remain the same post acquisition. Very grateful for her time particularly given the time of year there, in prime selling season with Black Friday and Cyber Monday and everything else that they need to get done in holiday and so stealing twenty to twenty five minutes of Katy’s time is a blessing and an honor. Really interesting path that Katy took to this position, she’s a finance and ops person by trade, spent a ton of time, as she will tell you, across GE in different divisions, in different locations, in different roles Many of the roles tended obviously to have a finance and an operations and an audit focus. Katy arrived into the CFO chair at ThinkGeek, which was then GeekNet – the parent company of ThinkGeek. She arrived in 2011 and moved into the CEO chair in March of 2013.
As with many companies that reach a certain level due to sort of passion and vision, Katy was brought in to provide the infrastructure that enables a company that has that passion and vision to become mature and to grow based on that platform and on that foundation. So she’s going to take us through some of the really interesting things, not only in her career, but also about how ThinkGeek has helped her in terms of being different from what she’s experienced in some of the ingredients that make that brand authentic and successful. We’ve talked about it in small ways along the way on this podcast, different lessons from being close in as they redefine their brand and sort of re-launch. We are very proud to have played a small role openly in their ability to grow shareholder value and then ultimately be acquired by GameStop in July. So without further ado Katy McCarthy.
Bill: Here we are with Katy McCarthy the CEO of GeekNet, the parent company of ThinkGeek, and I know that they’re still sort of working this out after the acquisition but ThinkGeek at GameStop has a nice ring to me, how does that sounds Katy?
Katy: It sounds great Bill, thank you.
Bill: Great and thanks for joining us especially given Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all these other important things around holiday. We’re grateful for your time and it’s just a pleasure to speak.
Katy: Happy to do it.
Bill: So what a ride for you just not only over obviously the totality of your career but particularly recently given the acquisition of ThinkGeek and GeekNet by GameStop. Congratulations by the way! How has it been? I’m sure you haven’t had a moment to sit and think about it but what’s been going on?
Katy: Well it’s certainly been very busy. As you mentioned, we’re always busy this time of year as a company that is a place where people love to come to shop for gifts. So we’re entering the busiest time of the year, but it’s been an exciting year. Our partnership with GameStop, we believe, will enable us to increase brand awareness, which I know is something we’ve talked about in the past as the big prize for the company. We’re now able to reach beyond our current customer base to a broader group of people who are passionate about video games, who are passionate about certain fandoms and that lines up right with ThinkGeek’s vision – which is we like to get people energized and passionate and geeking out about our products.
Bill: In addition to the normal chaos of the holidays, you add Star Wars right now on top of that. I can’t imagine what the excitement level is over there.
Katy: Well it’s really high energy. We’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time. Our GeekLabs team has developed some innovative and exclusive products related to Star Wars – both the older movies that some of us remember growing up, as well as The Force Awakens.
Bill: Sure, well exciting times. Speaking of exciting times, and going back a ways, would you mind taking us through some of the twists and turns in your career that have led up to this point? I think our listeners, given where you are, may find this journey a bit surprising. What could you tell us about your growth as businessperson?
Katy: Sure, well you know I started with GE, a large multinational company, straight out of school in a financial management training program and moved around to different rotational assignments. After that I joined GE’s core product staff, where I traveled throughout the world doing financials but also business process improvement reviews. After I finished that, after five years of being on the road, I moved to Europe and took an assignment at the time at GE plastics business in the Netherlands and spent about two years there. Then I moved back to their headquarters in a financial planning analysis role. A few years later, I had my first chief financial officer job in their transportation business and went back to Connecticut to run the audit staff that I was once a part of for a few years and then moved to London, so another international assignment as their chief financial officer of health care business.
So how did I get here from GE, which is very different company? It was due to one of our board members, who was on the board here at GeekNet. He sat on the GE board and needed somebody to come and basically take a business that had been very entrepreneurial and ensure that, because it was a public company, we had the proficiencies, the disciplines, and the metrics to grow and grow profitably. So I loved the idea of coming to more of a startup environment, a smaller company where I could get my hands on so many different things on a day-to-day basis. And I always love a challenge and certainly this has been one. I’ve been here now five years, first as CFO and then on to CEO.
Bill: What a journey I mean when you have a finance and operations background at a larger company environment, and obviously the GE culture and the Think Geek culture may have slight differences. How, beyond what you said Katy, is the need to bring some of the infrastructure into an environment that is so high energy in and highly creative? How has it felt? What’s the move been like to you? How have you handled a lot of different things? We know from being down there with you and your colleagues, how much passion there is, and energy, but no you’re a few years into this, how does it feel?
Katy: Well I think it feels great. I think we’re at a great place. We’ve had our challenges. It’s never easy to be a smaller e-commerce company and being a standalone public company. So we certainly had our challenges, but what we did is really take a step back and think about what’s most important, which is the customer. The fact that we have such an engaged passionate group of people that love ThinkGeek, who we are, that’s what motivates us every day and we did a lot of work around our brand and our exclusive products. We knew that launching more of our own exclusive products was the key to our success in a very competitive retail environment. So it’s different, I mean I can equate it to when I first came here and I had the opportunity throughout my career to work in different environments. So for example working in overseas assignments, traveling throughout the world, and being in different places, working in new acquisitions and I think when I first came here, just like those experiences, I had a lot to learn. I had a tremendous amount to learn about retail, about e-commerce, about the technology that powers it, but I leveraged the fact that I had moved industries and locations so many times and learned from the best, learned from the people who work here, who knew it better than I did.
Bill: Well I think one of the things that we found right away is, and it isn’t surprising given as you say the depth the passion of the ThinkGeek Universe and all of its fandoms that comprise it, these folks smell a fraud a mile away and the company is unmistakably and importantly of, by, and for the geek universe. Even while bringing these infrastructural elements and business processes, we know how hard you in the team have worked to make sure that the company remains really authentic. Could you speak about entering a culture where the team around you is so motivated and so a part of all of the things that core customer values?
Katy: Certainly. So it is a strength that we have our employees who are fans of the company, who are customers of the company, and I think it’s one of the things that makes ThinkGeek special. My challenge and our challenge was to ensure that while being authentic and remaining very true to the core, we were also being very inclusive. So I saw an opportunity, even if I just think about myself, I’m a mom over forty, buys a lot of gifts for the family. So I might not look like the core geek, but in fact I have the passion to want to find amazing gifts for people in my family or in my life and oh by the way if I can pick something up for myself, terrific. So I think that as a team we’ve come together to ensure we’re remaining authentic and should have a core while being inclusive and expanding the customer base.
Bill: You’re not Cos-playing every day Katy, when you go in?
Katy: I don’t have time. I mean the great thing about ThinkGeek is we have so many different fandom there’s always something for anyone who works here, any of our customers to be excited and passionate about. So I feel like there’s something fun for everyone on our site and in our stores that we sell to. So I think that is something that motivates our employees every day.
Bill: Sure and one of the things that I know that the company has elevated, and you referenced it, is this belief that all shapes and sizes, wherever we come from, whatever we’re into, there’s a little bit of geek inside of every one of us in terms of the activation of that passion and support of the things that we all love as individuals. Whether it’s classic fandoms that are obviously associated with geekdom and have been for a long time, but new things gadgets, different gifts. Could you speak to this sort of finding or the process of finding the geek inside of all of us?
Katy: Sure, well I mean I think first we start with our customers and we listen to our customers. We have a very engaged social media community and they have terrific suggestions for us, like what products they’d like to see and if they exist today they give us tremendous input on them or maybe on those that don’t yet exist. We also look at our team of people who have many diverse sets of passions. So for example few years ago we didn’t have much in terms of cooking related products, now R2-D2 measuring cups has been very successful for us, as well as previously the Star Trek Enterprise pizza cutter. So cooking is something that many people get passionate about and we’ve celebrated that with the some of our products.
Bill: Well this evolution of the brand and of the company that you’re talking about managing seems to track really closely with the way the concept of how geeks and geekdom has evolved. I mean it used to be that it was a pejorative term that was about the taxonomy of high school social groups and it was the kids that were in the basement and they were really smart, they were really into technology and they were kind of socially awkward, but over time the definition of a geek has expanded in such an inclusive way and it really is about sharing in a community it seems. Could you speak about how the sort of branding of the company has evolved in concert with perhaps the societal perception of what geeks are and who geeks are?
Katy: Sure, I mean clearly as technology has become a bigger part of everybody’s life, and geek has definitely become something that is more mainstream, it’s much more cool to be a geek than when I was in high school, let me say that. I think in terms of our brand, we always want to, as you said, we want to be authentic. The company started more as probably stuff, a lot of cool stuff that geeks would like. [Now] I think it’s more to more of a lifestyle brand and more overall experience and a place where people can celebrate their inner geek and connect with one another. So I think that’s been that evolution and has allowed us to be known by a broader group of people.
Bill: You mentioned the importance of GeekLabs and sort of home grown product concepts, when you think about the ThinkGeek brand and the fact that the business on the site has always featured mega licenses – Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and Mine Craft and on and on – how have you or how do you think about nurturing the ThinkGeek brand alongside these other critically important and also super well-known or well-regarded brands that are part of the product assortment? Is there any sort of juggling that has to go on there?
Katy: Well I think that the most important thing with our licensed product is to find that product that will generate conversation, that is unique, that is as timely. As Ty Liotta, who runs GeekLabs would say, it’s that part of the movie, if it’s a movie like Star Wars, that people who are really passionate fans remember and that they want to have a conversation about. So that’s where I think we get our authenticity within the licensed product. In GeekLabs however at least half of our products are non-licensed, so ThinkGeek branded items that our team comes up with the idea, generates, and has manufactured for a customer.
Bill: And to your point I mean it seems your R2-D2 measuring cups are perfect example. It is probably very easy if one simply wants a T. shirt, or plush, or whatever it is that reflects that character that they like, that entertainment property that they like, it’s probably easy to get that, but it probably isn’t easy to get the really sort of creative and unique and shareable applications of these licenses that the team conceptualizes at ThinkGeek.
Katy: Yes we want to create the product that people are themselves posting on social media and saying look what I got at ThingGeek, and that really creates a smile on everybody’s face because it’s such a fun product that in some cases will also be that joke that is the inside joke that people who are passionate fans understand.
Bill: Right and some of the other ways that the e-commerce site and all the other brand touchpoints bring the spirit to life, I mean through the blog, through the product videos that are hilarious. ThinkGeek has over a million likes on Facebook and similarly large communities across different social categories, the company obviously has a tremendous presence at Comic-Con and in different places where you would expect it to be a leader. How does, and we know we’re discussing it from a variety perspective, but the voice of the brand, the content, that drives such a strong community affiliation, how does that work alongside some of these incredible product ideas and applications?
Katy: Well I think it’s very important. We want not only the products to be fantastic but we want people to enjoy the experience. So when they read the copy, it may be sharing the inside joke or celebrating, it is definitely a voice that is unique and the balancing act there is always to be able to give that to the customer, but also make sure we’re providing the important information they need to decide whether or not they want to buy the product. So you want the voice to be there but you also have to keep in mind that you have a broad group of consumers who are coming, in particular around the holidays right now. Some may get the joke better than others and we just want to make sure we’re inclusive.
Bill: Speaking of inclusion, the stereotypical geek association, which is very outdated of course, but was a young male whether teens or early twenty’s, typically not with the family, you mention being a mom and there are obviously wide applications for the products in terms of gifts and self-use across the lifestyle. When you think about inclusion, how important is the demography, and attitudes, and behaviors of this broader marketplace as the company looks to expand its base?
Katy: Oh I believe it’s very important. I mean one example would be when I first arrived we sold primarily black T. shirts and many were very popular and some still are. However we knew if we wanted to reach more women, we might need a few other colors. We’ve added geeky scarfs with the pi and infinity symbol on them, some yoga pants, so in with that came of course more sales. So I do think it’s important to keep in mind who’s coming to the site. As we think about videogames for example we already had some videogame licenses. We’re now working with GameStop. A tremendous amount of, if you look at the data, women are playing videogames more than ever. So we needed to make sure that product assortment is broad enough to include everybody who wants to shop on our site.
Bill: Speaking of GameStop are you going back and forth to, they’re right around Dallas, right? You back and forth there all the time?
Katy: Well of course there was a lot of discussion in the beginning, but we’re very focused on this holiday, being our first holiday together, so the goal has been first things first let’s have a successful 2015 holiday season and there are bigger broader things that we can do as we get into 2016. We are very excited that we have our first retail stores, one opened in Orlando with our ThinkGeek brand on it in November, we have another store that opened in Nyack, New York last week, and another one coming in Dallas, so that’s very exciting for us.
Bill: Terrific, absolutely and I know that back before the acquisition, the company had been doing some things in the wholesale business and had been looking at and considering ways to bring this creativity, and the amazing products that the company makes, into different channels and reach the consumer in different ways. Obviously the retail expertise that GameStop brings, in addition to the possible enlargement of the consumer base, seemingly those are pretty important superpowers to talk about growth.
Katy: Very important I mean we’ve been a successful e-commerce company but we also saw some success in selling our products into big-box retailers and specialty retailers. So it’s perfect and I can tell you, our customers were incredibly excited about the retail location. We had people in Florida who drove several hours to be there for opening and that really is terrific for us, we want to see that grow and expand.
Bill: Yeah it’s great. So obviously retail is a huge innovation and a step forward for the brand, I know you’re very focused on making this a great holiday season. Any other things that you can talk about that we can expect from ThinkGeek in the next little while or as you look down the road or would you rather we wait and see?
Katy: Well I think what you can expect is that we continue to increase the number and the revenue from exclusive GeekLabs products. Now we have a bit more scale, so we have the opportunity to produce more and get that product distributed, as you said earlier through multiple channels, so we have a nice multichannel business. Hopefully this also will give us the opportunity to reach the significant customer base that GameStop has while continuing to delight and entertain our current customers and hopefully at some point we can do more outside the United States. There is still a tremendous amount of opportunity in the U.S. but this gives us a platform to look at international expansion at some point.
Bill: Definitely and having gotten to know Ty and team a little bit I mean the GeekLabs team and work process is really just an explosive idea factory of incredibly creative things that make you smile, make you laugh, and some ultimately turn out maybe to be impractical but the overall net effect of that is an assortment that is not something that you can even come close to finding anywhere else. And to be able to provide greater sort of oxygen and visibility to that incredible capability, I just can’t wait to see what happens when more and more people have access to these types of ideas.
Katy: Yes, well thank you. We are incredibly proud of the work that they’ve done, the team deserves all the credit and now they have an opportunity to create more unique products that will hopefully put a smile on the face of our current and future customers.
Bill: Sure, no doubt they will and as we close in Katy, thank you so much for this time and insight. It has been such a pleasure Finch playing an infinitesimal role and getting to know you and the team and to be able to see a bit of this close up has been a real joy for us. As people look at your own career path and the things you’ve learned along the way, and I’m sure all of our listeners or many of our listeners are finding inspiration in this sort of journey that you’ve taken, are there any words of wisdom that you can share with folks who find your career path or at least elements of the things that they might want to emulate in their own lives?
Katy: Sure. Well first I want to say thank you for this opportunity and thank you for the work that you and your team did. It was instrumental in us telling the story of our company to our investors and eventually to GameStop. To answer your question I have a couple of things that I reflect on. I think one is, when you’re presented with an opportunity, step up and take it, even if you feel like it might seem like a daunting job or something you’re not quite sure you’re ready for, push yourself and surround yourself with the right people and a good things will happen. And I think the second thing that I would say that I learned is it’s really important to learn from your setbacks and mistakes and to be resilient and move forward from those. Those are be the things that I try to keep in mind and share with my team because there will be things that won’t go well and the most important thing is that you learn from them and move on.
Bill: Yeah absolutely and to that end one final question, I lied I guess. Could you speak for a minute about sort of the mentorship and management side of things? And here’s a bit of context for why I think this would be interesting, when we got to know members of the team, and it’s a very self-contained really sort of passionate group of folks, many of whom may have come at their professional growth an opportunity out of a sort of a passion for the product and the fandoms. They may not have, many of them or all of them haven’t had sort of a linear classical business education across functions. They may have risen to where they are through passion, and as you think about expanding capability and capacity of the team, as you think through mentoring and managing folks whose journeys may have had more of left and right turns, what have you found within the culture and how would you describe the internal side of this as you nurture and grow the team?
Katy: Well I think it’s something that is a balance every day that we have to strike, which is the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the company. It’s essential, it is a culture, its who we are but as we’ve grown and been asked to do more, we’ve been thrilled to have the opportunity to add some more business disciplines that needed to be sharpened. So for example project management, we’ve added some people who at GeekLabs aren’t necessarily the creative product development people but they’re very good at project management. Some more skills around technology as we expanded our presence in mobile. This year we just launched an app, we implemented in new RP system, so that required us to add certain skill sets within information technology engineering that we may not have had but blended in nicely with the people who’d been coding the website for quite some time. So I think it’s how do you balance what is so good about the core with some of the business process disciplines that are essential as a company grows to a certain level and wants to increase profitability.
Bill: Do you have to get it yet to be effective there? I mean regardless of what your professional pedigree might be, it would seem like whether one is a classically motivated geek and loves some of these fandoms in their own personal lives, at the very least you have to kind of respect that, right?
Katy: Yes absolutely, I mean you have to respect it. If you come in and you think immediately I’m going to take a cookie cutter approach that I use somewhere else and just plop it down here and it’s going to work correctly that would be naive. They definitely need to understand, to be empathetic to the culture and embrace it, but at the same time make sure that the goals and objectives that you set for yourself and your team are being achieved.
Bill: Sure, well that’s a great place to leave it. We’ve kept you longer than we promised but we’re so grateful for your insight. We wish you and the team all the best certainly for the holidays and can’t wait to see how this story unfolds over time. What a great opportunity, a great brand, a great group of people and Katy McCarthy of ThinkGeek honored that you spent some time with us this morning.
Katy: Thank you very much Bill and happy holidays.
Bill: Many thanks to Katy for her time and her insight. It has been such a pleasure for us to be part of the story of ThinkGeek and to get to know Katy and members of her team along the way. Three ways as always to help us here at real world branding, the first is to subscribe if you like what we’re doing, we do an interview with a business or brand builder basically every other week, although that schedule may be modified slightly over the holidays here. And then in off weeks we will do what we call One Big Idea, which is a focused kind of meditation for ten or so minutes on one important topic that we’re running into, either that came up through one of our interviews or through our work with clients as we build our own brand here at Finch Brands. So subscribing to us by clicking that button in the App Store of your choice will make sure that you do not miss a one. We think it or at least we hear that it also helps us with making sure that we are found in search results for others who might find value in the type of content that we put out there at Real-World Branding. Second way is to rate us and we’d love to hear it. We appreciate feedback and ideas for how to make this ever better and ever more valuable, but rating us if we’ve deserved four stars, five stars would be something that we would certainly love to see. We think that also helps us with search results. And then lastly, let’s keep this dialogue going. Twitter’s probably the best way @billgullan or @finchbrands, finch like the bird. Ideas for future guests, questions for future guests, topics that you’d like to hear us address, as well as just feedback on what we’re doing well and what we’re what we’re not doing so well. We’d love to hear it to make sure this is time well spent for you our dear listeners. So on that note a wonderful Thanksgiving and holiday season to all of you and will sign off from the cradle of liberty.
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‘What’s in a name?’ Naming a product or company is one of the most exciting and challenging processes. With many creative routes to take, it can be difficult to know where to start or how to evaluate candidates. In this week’s One Big Idea, Bill explores the naming process and provides guidance on effective ways to structure ideation and selection. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and this is One Big Idea. This week’s topic, which we’re calling Naming in Practice, is about what is probably the most fun and I’d say simultaneously the most difficult type of project or engagement that we work on here at Finch Brands, and that is naming. Naming products and services, naming companies. Love it, it’s really fun, it’s very stimulating, but at the same time it is hard.
So I thought this week we’d talk about a couple of ideas for how to think about naming processes, how to do one yourself, some stories from the trenches of doing this, and things that maybe having stepped in it at some point my career, we can help you to avoid stepping in it. So three thoughts, one for before the brainstorming and creative process, the second for during, and the third for after.
The first is that while naming is an inherently subjective and often polarizing process, it is important to establish objective criteria for success before you start. In naming there is very rarely a thunderbolt of ‘Wow, that’s it, that’s amazing, that’s the name.’ That doesn’t happen much. There’s a couple reasons for that.
One, I think the dominant reason is that what you are evaluating when you are thinking about a naming process is really words on a page, where it’s pixels on a screen. The names that when we look at the market and we all say, ‘wow that’s a great name,’ or whatever it is they tend to be great because of the brand that’s been built around them. They also tend to be great because of the experiences that we’ve had with the company. So for a name or for a brand to really become three dimensional in that way requires more than just black type on a white screen.
So to hold up name candidates that are just possible ideas to that level of comparison, ultimately, leaves you wanting. This is not a way to set expectations or to make you ever think that you should feel forced to go forward with a name that you don’t like, but establishing objective criteria up front enables you to, in a fairly clear headed way, evaluate the names and the ideas that come forth and to have the right level of expectation about how you’re going to feel when you’re thinking through name ideas and naming processes.
It’s important in establishing those criteria that you use them to do a bit of pre-work before you brainstorm. For example, its always good to look up words, phrases, or images associated with a product or a concept. You can do Google image and text searches, you can look in the thesaurus or a dictionary type of environment, or whatever it is. It is best often, before you go to actual name ideas, to have a conceptual idea set forth.
It’s also good in a process like this to think about your category, think about related ideas having terminology, lingo different slang or colloquial terms. At the front of your thinking, this may help with a brainstorming process. Looking up other things whether it’s movie, book, and song titles, whether it’s cloud formations, whether it’s names of rocks, trees, or natural phenomena. Often some of the best and most effective names are metaphors that represent something about what you’re trying to convey but aren’t as direct as maybe one would want to be.
Again that’s about the potential of what you build around it. So when you think about the criteria that you want to establish front up, you need to think about your business strategy, you need to think about the way in which the name will be used and marketed, and you need to think about the relative elements of what you’re putting forth. Whether you’re focused on making someone feel something, whether you’re focused on underlining a particularly differentiable quality and what it is that you’re bringing to market etc.
So when you’re thinking through brainstorming, you could have three, four, or five criteria. One example might be if you’re dealing with a name of a company that might be extended into a product or a service family, the successful name would need to have the ability to get some extended mileage from it. So brand architecture and thinking through that might be something that lands on your list of criteria. It might be that, in your category, this is less important with mobile, but that the domain name needs to be available organically, which, by the way, is very hard these days for that to be the case. But if that is extra important in your category, you may want to set that criteria.
One other thing is, if your brand is striking that balance of rational and emotional, you would want the name to take a little bit of the burden of positioning, meaning defining difference. You want the name to at least be evocative or expressive of what key differences are from others. The more objective that you can make a process like this starting ahead of time, the better the outcome.
The second idea when you’re in the midst of a process like this, or when you’re evaluating the names that you’ve developed, or that others have developed with you or for you, there’s a couple of things in addition to assessing strategic and creative fit that you really need to keep in mind. First is obviously legal availability, and the second, a close cousin, is domain availability.
It does not make sense, ultimately, for you and your colleagues to waste time, falling in love with or discussing names that pretty obviously you’re not going to be able to have. I mean trademark law is a big gray area, so it ultimately has to do with interpretation, it has to do with levels of risk, but at the same time there are certain names that by virtue of being the names of a direct competitor or being potentially confusing to your marketplace ought not to be advanced in a naming process.
So at Finch Brands, for example, before we submit any name to a client, it will have already undergone a uspto.gov trademark search and will already have undergone domain availability search. This is our standard practice, and we’re not attorneys, so we’re not clearing or eliminating names based upon a final legal answer or opinion. It’s best for our clients counsel to do that, but it saves time. If you’re submitting names that you know at least have passed that course of evaluation, then it leads you to a place where the names that you’re evaluating are worth the time to think through.
So another thing that you may want to add, everybody’s a global business today because of the Internet removing geographic boundaries, but if you’re absolutely focused on global up likability, either through expansion or even within the diverse multicultural population in the U.S., being understanding of embracing the product you may want to screen for linguistic appropriateness as well certainly in the key languages. There’s obviously many funny examples of companies that didn’t do that. The famous obviously is the Chevy Nova which translated in Spanish is ‘no go.’ Certainly not the message that one would want for an automobile and there are many other examples if you just want to Google search, some are funny and a little bit off color.
The third thing to think about ultimately, is how you evaluate candidates. I mean we’ve talked about the objective criteria, those boxes that need to be checked for a name to ultimately be successful, but coming out the back end of the creative process, as you think of which candidates to put forth, as you think about which candidates to move into the finalist position, and ultimately be the name. We have enough experience doing this to know that, again no thunderbolts, and so what that means is that you’re often evaluating names for the absence of negatives.
There’s nothing about it that’s confusing, there’s nothing about it that’s negative, there’s nothing about it that’s offensive. Once you get rid of names that have those negative check marks by their name, when you’re thinking about the names that remain it shouldn’t be the binary ‘like it, hate it’ or it hits you right away or all of a sudden it’s the greatest thing you ever heard of. That doesn’t happen, but what does happen is certain candidates, by virtue of the absence of negatives and by virtue of the potential that they exist for brands to be built around them – are they expressive, can you see them translating easily into a visual or a verbal representation, can you see them aligning with the culture and personality of what your company does.
When you see the potential of names, that’s really when you’re entering a territory where you can make the right choices. If you’re going to be sitting there waiting for a name to score a five on a one of five scale with everyone you talk to or whatever it is, you’re going to be waiting a very long time, it’s just not how it works.
I remember when I started my career in naming, in the 90’s, everyone said we want a name as great as Amazon. What made the name Amazon great, and I guarantee you, weren’t just words on a page and an Internet bookseller saying, ‘Hey, should we name this Amazon?’ Everybody would say no. They wouldn’t connect it, they wouldn’t understand what made the name Amazon great. The company was great, and thus the name became a household representation of a company that we love, that’s disruptive, that’s changing the world in a positive way. Once Amazon expanded across all the different categories, the meaning of the name became clear, the longest river in the world, the fact that it has everything in it was designed to suggest incredible breath. So day one, if you or your creative team or whatever came back and said, ‘Hey I think we should name it Amazon,’ you’d probably be thinking about large and somewhat scary women from history, or whatever it is.
You wouldn’t necessarily get it, and so we’d have clients coming to us all the time and say, ‘I want the name as great as Windows.’ Well because Microsoft was in its heyday it isn’t that Windows was such a great name, but this was descriptive of what the product did, how it looked, and what made it great. It was the brand, the delivery of what Windows truly was, and how that changed personal computing.
So the bottom line is, again for the third time, not going to be thunderbolts here, most likely, but the name candidate with which you should move forward is going to be one that fits the criteria you set out ahead of time, one that clears the right screening – USPTO, domain names, linguistic evaluation – and then one that has the potential to be rendered and delivered in a way that enables the organization or the product to be well represented and for the overall experience to be very positive.
There’s a lot more about how we do naming, different brainstorming techniques, or different ways to consider what is or what isn’t good, but hopefully this gets you started a bit. Naming in Practice is this week’s One Big Idea and as we think about managing an engagement or a process that is designed to name something, again super fun, but challenging.
I think one of the reasons why it’s really challenging is that compared to something like graphic design where there’s a built in acknowledgement that most people don’t possess the skills to do that, we all know the language, more or less, and the reality is that great ideas can come from all over a process like this either from our clients, the daughter of the CEO, or our team who does this every day, whomever. So that should be an egalitarian process evaluating ideas that come from all over, but at the same time you really need to try to make it not only artistic but scientific and hopefully these couple of thoughts have helped you all think about it as you go forth and may have to tackle this on your own someday.
Thanks as always, this is been One Big Idea. We will be back next week with another interview with a business and brand builder that we hope will be compelling. As always three ways to help us on Real-World Branding. One, give us a subscription.Click that box on your app store of choice to make sure you do not miss an episode.
Secondly, if we’ve deserved it, we’d love to see your rating. We’re told that the more aggressively and frequently that shows are rated and podcasts are rated, that helps ensure that other people who may enjoy this will have greater access to it as it rises up the rankings within app stores. Then thirdly, let’s keep the dialogue going on Twitter or beyond. Twitter’s probably easiest and the best way to get to me is @BillGullan or @FinchBrands, Finch like the bird. Signing off from the Cradle of Liberty, have a wonderful week.
In honor of the season openings for both the NBA and NHL, we are recasting our interview with Scott O’Neil, CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils. Scott has a very unique perspective on life, business, and branding. We sit down to discuss the Sixers brand, elevating a city with a sports team, and how “The Rule of Three” has influenced Scott’s career. If you enjoy our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a review in the store of your choice!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Scott O’Neil: We have this incredible opportunity in this city with this great brand and long standing history. We are starting to figure out who we are and the core is following and some of that has to do with messaging and marketing. But at the end of the day, if you don’t understand your brand, your fans won’t.
Bill Gullan:Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. This week, in honor of the tip-off of the NBA season, as well as the NHL season, we are rebroadcasting our interview with Scott O’Neil. He is the CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils, as well as of the Prudential Center, home of the Devils. The guy has a lot in his hands and a lot of different things, busy guy, super high energy.
As these seasons kick-off, tip-off, face-off, whatever it is, Scott’s thinking around not only sports marketing and brand building but how orgs can come together and define themselves and put forth a consistent and powerful face to the marketplace is an important lesson always.
We are going to get back, next week, to our regular schedule of new episodes starting with obi and interviews with business and brand building leaders with incredible insights and stories. For now, we thought that Scott’s message was worth underlining given the start of these seasons as well as the insights within.
This was also our first episode ever, we had simultaneously taped the first two episode with Scott and Nick Bayer of Saxbys. That was back in April or maybe even March, I know it was around March Madness given Scott’s hopes for Villanova’s tourney run. Hopefully, not only has our listenership progressed since then, but also our skills on the production side and yes on the hosting side as well. So enjoy, Scott O’Neil.
Bill:You have a lot of different roles and responsibilities. So you’re title in a paragraph or less?
Scott: Sure. So I’m CEO of Philadelphia 76ers, the New Jersey Devils, and the Prudential Center.
Bill: Awesome, so a lot on your plate?
Scott: Yeah. Quite a bit.
Bill: You’re in Philly about how much of the time?
Scott: About half. I live down here. I live in West Chester, but I’m up there in New York on Mondays then I split the rest of the week.
Bill: Glad to have you. A Villanova guy!
Scott: Go Cats! Yeah, when you’re listening to this, we probably have won a national championship.
Bill: Anyway, when I first was coming to meet with you a year or so ago, being a good stalker, I googled right away after your hire. The first thing I saw was this article from Inc. Magazine; it was about this rule of three. I was very taken with the process and the experience that they had described that you had worked at MSG. Can you tell us what went into that, and how it worked?
Scott: Sure. So when I was growing up, I grew up in a town called Newburg, NY, upstate New York, pretty rough town. My parents both worked – both entrepreneurs. So we had experienced the feast and famine of entrepreneurial parents. My mom ran a couple businesses. My dad ran a few businesses, some successful, some not so successful.
We had 5 kids, all pretty tight. The four oldest are boys and the youngest is my sister. So it’s a pretty chaotic house with 5 crazy kids. So our parents pretty much gave us three rules. One was ‘Don’t hurt each other,’ ‘Don’t hurt your mother,’ and the last ‘No girls in the bedroom.’
So one of the ways I thought about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness came all in 3’s. When I was at the NBA for quite some time and Madison Square Garden, I always thought there were 3 things that drive a business.
One of them was always ‘root for each other’ and three was always ‘make sure your pushing and dedicating yourself to create a world class organization.’ Two seemed to move around over my decade that I used it. At the NBA, it was ‘no surprises’. And at the Garden, it was ‘share everything’. Here we are a little more traditional. We have a mission, core values, and that kind of stuff.
We have our commitments, but I always think that you can rally people around something that matters, in particular with so many millennials in the work force now. The world’s really different, and it’s changing really fast.
I don’t know if this is going off topic, but I’m going to take the opportunity to say that we’ve got over 180 people here of which 150 of them are under 25. That creates an incredible opportunity culturally. It’s such a special workforce especially over the last three decades.
They’re really smart; they’re really fun; they are very entitled; and they believe they have total access. They work hard and believe they can run into a wall. They just need to believe in something bigger than the mundane job they have. This is a group that doesn’t buy houses, that doesn’t buy cars, but they are very mission driven group.
Here we spend a lot of our time talking about the ‘why.’ The ‘why’ really matters to millennials. We’re really focused on our community here. So when you sign up to work here, you give 76 hours of service. We shut down the office once a month, and then people are going to do stuff of their own, but you can mentor; you can teach; you can coach; you can go clean you can paint; you just have to give back if you work here.
Again, very mission driven, very much about using the platform that we are given in sports entertainment to do something better which I think is consistent with this work force – and we have free food.
I promise I’m not going to ask you any questions about what is Sam doing, but let’s talk about the other side. Because wins and loses come and go but when you think about the role of a brand or culture beyond who happens to be performing or not performing, what do you think of the role that brand plays outside of what the standings might say?
Scott: That’s a pretty complex question, but I can tell you that Finch was instrumental in helping us last year when we came in. As you know I went to Villanova, as you mentioned, and then having worked for the Eagles and then having a failed start-up here. I spent a good 10-11 years of my life here and have a good sense of the market.
Then being back for a couple years, it’s just more of my home. I consider Philadelphia home, and it’s a pretty fascinating and interesting sports city. It’s not like going to Atlanta, LA, or Dallas where some of the more transient markets are. It’s just hardcore, and people love what we do and the brands that we have.
So we are given a tremendous head start on just about any other business and any other brand in any other place in the world. We got a heck of place to start from. We believe that here transparency is really important. We believe in getting ahead of the message. We believe in the core attributes of what our brand is all about.
It’s a city of the heart of the American Revolution. Some of the greatest inventions of the last century took place here. It’s a city that’s Rocky-tough and gritty, and you got to leave it all on the floor or at the office or at the factory.
So a lot of those attributes enter about being a revolutionary at heart, and in the end, being gritty and tough and part streetfighter, part brain. That’s how I see myself and that’s very much how, when we talk about figuring out who we are, that’s always the first step and what fans see or what business people see.
It’s just what it is. But most of our work the past 12 months has been figuring out who we are, and what’s that North Star? What’s the guiding post? What does it look like? The therefore-after that becomes relatively tactical.
So I think when you talk about our business in terms of wins and losses and that’s how we are defined in terms of our success, that the businesses that can flatten out the troughs of the roller coaster and do a little bit better. When a team wins 57 games in the regular season and we’re on a playoff tear, even I could sell in that environment. But when you’re looking at March with 13 wins and 50 losses, that’s when we do the real work.
That’s when we are doing foundational work, and we have had great success. Sponsorships are up 30%, and I just looked at the preliminary business plan and our group has gone up another 30% to share. That’s pretty healthy. Our season tickets grew by over 20% last year. And they are projected to grow another 20% this year.
So you’re seeing, in a really tough environment, growth. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have parts in our businesses that are down, such as individual game tickets sales. Our ratings, some measures of the casual fans, are very much us getting slaughtered. But then core business for us which are sponsorship and season ticket base are growing.
You can either see us being geniuses and having a great staff or you could look at the core realities. We have this incredible opportunity in this city with this great brand and long standing history. We are starting to figure out who we are and the core is following and some of that has to do with messaging and marketing. But at the end of the day, if you don’t understand your brand, your fans won’t.
Bill: Everything you talked about in terms of commitments, I would imagine, regardless of what the standings say, that the experience that one has interacting with anyone within this organization is consistent with the experience of fun.
Scott: Yeah, I think so. I love going to our games. It’s amazing that a team that struggles as much as we can in the win/loss column, it’s amazing our team is built in the likeness of the city, and it’s not an accident that comes right from our coach that says we have to be gritty tough. We have to work hard. We have to leave it all on the floor every night. You don’t take a possession off of this team.
We take every measure. We measure everything. We measure every step in how people are working and running and it’s important but if you go to our games, like a few minutes left in the game, you’ll see 15,000 people yelling ‘DEFENSE, DEFENSE.’ I’ll smile look around, and I get the chills. I say ‘How is this happening? And why?’ We have incredible people here, who create a really fun experience. We have fans who care and players that go hard. But there’s a lot of other stuff you can do.
The challenge when I was in school, seems like over 100 years ago now, I kept hearing ‘I’m ready.’ I was a marketing major studying 1 to 1 marketing. I didn’t even know what it was then, and now if you don’t do that now, it’s 1 to 1- what have you connected with me in the last fifteen minutes. We have this incredible opportunity to reach people on a different level, and I mean I’m really excited about our potential here for this team and growing the business.
I’m really excited about the evolution of the brand here, but more intrigued about how we have this incredible opportunity to change the trajectory of the base and the city here. Think about it, and I’m not overstating this. I’ve seen it happen. You can actually lift a city with a sports team. And think about the power of that, and we have that opportunity and it’s fun.
Bill: So we talked certainly about the trajectory of the Sixers. We know that your portfolio is broader. It includes the Devils, and it includes the building. Hockey and basketball are different on some level, and each franchise is in a different moment. How would you compare and contrast the challenges of the brand or communications level? How it might differ from the Prudential Center itself? Devils? Sixers? How much is the same? How much isn’t?
Scott: I guess the process and discipline are the same but the brands couldn’t be any more different for all three. The Prudential Center was brand-less when we got there. We’re in a really competitive market with the Izod Center, Nassau Coliseum, Madison Square Garden, and Barclays. Izod is shutting down, and Nassau should be shutting down for a couple of years. So we’re kind of left with the two horses.
They’re number 1 and 2 in the country in terms of booking. The world’s most famous arena, the limping legend, they have all that history and tradition at Madison Square Garden that’s just pinned up and I think it’s the 4th or 5th iteration of the Garden, but this history is so rich in there. It’s incredible. And Barclays Center which kind of like faux-hipster-cool with the fake Jay-Z thing, all the black and white, and Brooklyn and hardcore Brooklyn and I think they did both incredible jobs of giving brands to buildings, and we didn’t.
We went through a pretty exhaustive exercise in New York, and where we are is, we’re really different. So we’re hugs over handshakes, we kind of Norm walking into Cheers. We want this to feel like you go home from work, you leave your suit, you throw on a jersey, you grab your keys, and come to a game. We want you to dance and to cheer in our place. We want you to leave with sore throats and sore hands, and when you walk in, whether it’s the ushers, the concessioners, the security guard, me, a player, a coach, or a ticket sales rep, you feel like family. That’s a really fun brand to sell and be part of.
The Devils is different. It’s a little bit of a schizophrenic brand. You have this incredible history and tradition. It’s one of the most winningest hockey franchises among the top three over the last twenty years. They have a reputation of fans not showing. The reality is they have a lot of hardcore fans, and the brand stands for ‘the jersey over back of the jersey’ sacrifice, which is what can you do for your teammates; are you willing to give a little to get a lot for the team? That’s not translated to the fan in the way they react to the brand and the team. So there’s a whole opportunity there to reinvent what that might look like.
It’s also a challenge having the name ‘Devils.’ It was a contest that the team ran in 1981 before they moved to name the team, and there was a legend of a New Jersey Devil who rolled in the swamp lands of the shoreline in New Jersey. It represents some really interesting challenges for marketers and the leadership to figure out how to avoid any demonic presence, and it’s really easy to fall into natural traps that you might have.
We were trying to build a base in a market that’s incredible. If you just took north Jersey and took the population, it would be the 4th largest market in the country behind New York, LA, and Chicago. Second wealthiest state in the country. Number 1 in education. It has 26 Fortune 500 companies, just in north Jersey. That’s more than Chicago, LA, and San Francisco combined.
This is a powerhouse market, but no one is really from there. You got a thousand multinationals, people from all over the world. There’s no sense of town. So when we talked about this being the town square, but it’s not there yet.
Plus, we’re in Newark which is a really tough town. So what we’re trying to figure is how this can be the connective tissue to a bettering community where most people go to Philadelphia or New York to work or live So it’s a pretty complicated jigsaw puzzle, but we’re on the case.
Bill: Obviously, you’ve provided great depth and texture to where the Sixers are, so I won’t burden you to explain it again. This has been terrific, and we appreciate your time and your insight. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you over the past year. Proud son of the city. We are very excited about the future of the franchise and everything else.
Scott: Can I give you a public thanks for ‘Together We Build’ because that was the stroke of genius. I always take credit for it myself, just so you know. I thank you for that and the campaign. It really put us on the map and took us out of the oblivion or pain that I often times see these other franchises go through. It’s brilliant, brilliant work. You’re incredible.
Bill: I know that the hashtag isn’t being used as much. I still try to tweet it back to the organization and see if someone will use it.
Scott: You know I think we’re in a funny time. I’m going to use this time to talk about we’re in a funny time in this organization, where it’s exactly what we needed at the right time. When you’re resetting your brand, you never want to be flipping by month or even year. You want to have something you can stick with.
We do quite a bit of research and testing. The market wanted to move off of that. It felt to them like we were saying five years, and we don’t want to build anymore like make a decision. So we’re a little bit like we’re floating, but we have a plan, but we’re floating now. It’s quite a challenge, but it was the anchor that I’ll always point to forever that kind of stroke of genius.
Bill: Thanks that means a lot to us, and I’ll never forget the first pregame of last season. If we stopped it there, it would have been perfect, we would have been undefeated. We were following social media chatter, and we were so proud. I remember I was at a bar and everyone was crowding around the TV. I look in social media, and everyone is saying ‘Together We Build.’ We’re building; we’re ready – 3-0. But thanks for your kind words. It means a lot.
To close, you shared so much, but any other things that you’ve learned along the way that you think of folks who are practitioners of how to build brands and businesses and people who aspire to reach the heights that you’ve reached through hard work and talent. A couple of things, if not, fine. Any things about this journey and things that stand out to you?
Scott: Yeah, sure. I’m usually on the advice receiving business, not the advice giving. But I’ll give it a shot. I would say one is just listen more, ask more questions, and listen. We are all so focused, and we all have a voice. We are all members of the media Everyone, your taxi driver, the guy that serves you in a restaurant, the babysitters of your kids, the person getting your ticket at the movies, we’re all members of the media. I just to encourage you to ask more questions and listen more than you talk. People will tell you; that’s the good news. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is a lesson that took me a long time to learn in my career. Make it about the who. Forget about the what. Some people say ‘I want to work in sports,’ and I say ‘No, just go work for someone you like, love, and respect.’ And go on the ride because that’s the fun part. The what will take care of itself; it’ll emerge; it’ll come. You’ll find your place, your passion, and probably some of pain points. But the lesson I wish I learned earlier was just seek out the who. You want to be around really, really top talent who are even better people.
Bill:Many thanks to Scott O’Neil for his insights back in March and for being our first guest on the Real-World Branding podcast. Hopefully since then, we’ve kept the energy high and the insights flowing.
As always on Real-World Branding, there’s three ways to support what we’re doing. We’d love it if you’d click the subscribe button, so even if we take a few weeks off, you won’t have to wonder when that next episode’s going to come in, because as soon as it’s available, if you’re subscribing to it, it’ll download into the device of your choice. We’d love a rating if we deserved in the app store of your choice. We understand that that does help, particularly for those that rate us highly, others to find us who may find some interest and joy in this content. Lastly, let’s resume or keep that dialogue going on Twitter @BillGullan or @FinchBrands. We always love ideas for guests and topics and questions and everything else.
We’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
We’ve noticed increased interest among non-profits in branding as a discipline. In this week’s One Big Idea, Bill explores why that is and provides insight into the challenges and opportunities these organizations face — and how service providers should adapt processes to support the unique rhythms of non-profits. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and this is One Big Idea. This week’s edition is about Branding for a Better World, a focus on nonprofits and some of the unique rhythms of brand development, brand management, and managing processes aimed at enhancing nonprofit brands.
We at Finch, about eighteen years old, we started with two retail executives who were very eager to apply the lessons learned in the retail world, the unique pace and intensity of retail depending on the size of the business and the brand, as many are put to the test hundreds of thousands of times a day. Our founders were seeking to apply those lessons across categories and that led us into a decent amount of nonprofit work. But that said, we are proud generalists and I know there are some who are dedicated to serving nonprofits only and exclusively. We are not one of those firms and so it’s been very interesting to see the rhythms of branding in the nonprofit sector and how they’ve changed over time. In fact in the last two to three years we’ve seen a real increase in interest, it seems, in what we do among non-profits and I think there’s kind of three reasons for that, we’ve observed I mean.
The first is, coming out of the recession, we have seen and heard a lot of non-profit organizations that were seeking to make the transition from agency to philanthropy. What I mean by that is if you are a social services agency that was overwhelmingly public sector supported, the austerity or at the very least unpredictability of public sector support has made it important to find sources of earned income or donation and support from high net worth individuals, or private foundations, or corporations and etc. And thus the transition from sort of sleepy social services agency where the focus of effort was on service delivery and on excellence within that continuum of care and mission delivery, now as a philanthropist there’s a much greater emphasis on the need to be strong storytellers, strong marketers, strong relationship builders, and so that transition from agency to philanthropy is something that we’ve seen a lot and it seems largely to be based upon that changing role or at least the lack of predictability in terms of public sector support for nonprofit initiatives.
The second thing that we’ve seen and experienced is a lot of generational transfer happening both in the governance or board level but also among staff members at non-profits. What that means is more Gen Xers and even millennials are entering decision-making positions at non-profits as well as on the philanthropist and donation side. [This sets] different expectations in terms of how that interaction takes place, how the experience is choreographed both for board and staff, but also on the donor side there’s a strong desire to use digital tools, there’s a strong desire on the part of low expense ratios, there’s a strong desire in the direction of greater depth and texture to understanding impact.
So, generational transfer has had an impact as well and then thirdly, I think of a general appreciation for brand storytelling and the role of brand in helping shape an organization’s narrative, its sense of distinctiveness, and sense of purpose. As this manifests, there are new avenues of storytelling like social media that have replaced your annual report, or whatever the major reporting milestones used to be. There is a day in day out expectation of stories of impact, stories of mission, and this greater appreciation for the need to be great storytellers has increased interest in our sector.
So those are three things that seem to lead to [increased desire for branding in the nonprofit sector]. I’ve never been down on the corner of Fourth and Chestnut streets waving the banners saying ‘hey nonprofits, you know come to Finch Brands.’ Again, we have a pretty general practice but at the same time this sort of greater intensity of the interest in what we do, and common threads, and what we hear as we meet some of these organizations has had an impact on how we think and what the world looks like for nonprofits.
When it comes to serving our nonprofit clients and building engagements, there are nine things that are different in the nonprofit sector versus your traditional kind of private sector client.
The first is that organizations are mission driven by definition. We have many private sector clients where we did need to do a little bit of education on the role and importance of vision, mission, and values to get to the ‘why’ of an organization, to get beyond product features and functionality. We do not have that educational need in the nonprofit sector, but one of the consequences of that mission and passion being dominant and being so in evident in everyone you interact with is, we do find a need to educate a little more on the other end in terms of organizational infrastructure and strategic planning and other elements that may not come as naturally to folks in the nonprofit realm or may not have been overriding features of their business education either practically or academically.
So that’s one, I lump two and three together which is a more collaborative workflow and more consensus oriented decision-making process. When we build, let’s just say it’s a re-branding project for a non-profit that’s seeking to energize or reconsider fundamental brand premises (which may rise all the way up to nomenclature, certainly logo, and other elements of brand expression), the collaborative workflow and the consensus oriented mode of making decisions is important as we design the structure of an engagement. It is essential on the front end to think very deeply about who and how in terms of involvement and providing insight to our team. And it’s also very important throughout and certainly on the back end for how to enroll folks in a powerful and consistent way in the emergent artifacts of that brand development/brand expression process.
For us it’s always about content and process in the private sector where decision paths tend to be more hierarchical. You really need to nail the content, and the process, to a degree, takes care of itself; you have to be smart about obviously unrolling it. We’ve talked about this on a previous podcast, about unrolling internal teams in terms of living the brand and modeling the brand. But there are training pathways that exist to get that done. In the nonprofit sector we find that content always matters. What we develop needs to be great, but process matters just as much because the success of an overall re-branding endeavor, just to use one example of the work scope, is going to be based upon not just what comes out of it, but how people feel before, during, and after.
The fourth and fifth unique considerations in working with nonprofits are as follows, and I lump them together. The fourth is that stakeholder webs are so complex and individualistic and the fifth is that the customer is not the funder. So often nonprofits are dealing with very complex webs of stakeholders from obviously board, staff, and donors on the internal side, but the recipients of services or whatever it is that the nonprofit yields and in pursuance of its mission. Often you have partner agencies, often you have the public sector – state, local, federal – you may have the media, you may have neighbors if a non-profit’s facilities were involved, etc. So these webs are really complicated. You need to figure out in a process, how it’s important to collect insight as well as ensure that messaging is, at the highest level, consistent, but then there’s a map in terms of how different groups with different agendas and different objectives need to receive the brand message of an organization.
And then the fifth that I lump into that, is that the customer is not the funder. If I’m making detergent, what I need to do is to obviously sell to retailers, but once I have sold my SKUs in, there’s a choice, ultimately, that the consumer makes: this detergent or that detergent. That’s fairly linear, it isn’t easy but it’s simple. When it comes to nonprofits, where often the funding sources are very different from the recipients of services, you find that the agendas don’t always line up. The modes of persuading, the modes of galvanizing in motivating don’t always line up so you need to think about that extra layer that is created by the customer often having a different identity than the funder.
The sixth consideration is that the marketplace often features what I guess we can call co-ompetition – a hybrid of cooperation and competition. Most of our nonprofit clients know that, on some level, they’re competing. They’re not competing in the kind of knife fight that often the private sector in the retail world certainly becomes, where you’re driving traffic and eyeballs, but our nonprofit clients are competing for attention, they’re competing for space in the media, they are competing for dollars, they’re competing, often, for what we call ‘clients’. They are competing and folks tend to know that intuitively, even if it isn’t always the most comfortable thing to think about, but often they work in an ecosystem where there’s a ton of cooperation required – either partner organizations, or governmental resources, or whatever the case may be. There’s an uneasy, sometimes uneasy, but constant reality of needing to compete but also to cooperate. That is often challenging when it comes to how you build brand and marketing programs for nonprofits.
The seventh is that the donor and volunteer market is highly fickle. That kind of speaks for itself, but you certainly find a need to choreograph the donor experience. People are generally very passionate about the causes in which they involve themselves, but at the same time they want to often drive, not only obtain the satisfaction from supporting an organization they believe in to help people in need, but they also want to choreograph their own experience whether it’s serving as a volunteer, having some visibility or line of sight to impact, potentially being in a board or governance role. The desire and sort of the care and feeding of donor base and volunteer base is an extra layer of complexity for this.
Eight is that the operating model is even more primary to success. The reason for that is that you may be dealing, on the staff side or even on the board side, with folks whose general advancement in the nonprofit career has been passion and mission driven, and while they’re very savvy, there are variable levels of functional training. So the model for nonprofits really needs to be cohesive and coherent, and to provide very smart breadcrumbs for often a very wild and woolly organization, in the best possible way, to stay focused on strategic planning objectives, to stay focused on organizational objectives, to not say yes to everything, to not take on everything.
And that relates to the ninth and final consideration which is that brand clarity is often really difficult to come by in the nonprofit sector. You would think with mission being so primary, you would think with everyone believing so firmly in a cause, that it might be easier to get to clarity. On the contrary we’ve experienced the process of getting to clarity often is clouded by these webs of stakeholders, it’s often clouded by many different programs, it’s clouded by always saying yes, in the impulse always being to help even if it doesn’t fit within an organizational structure, and thus boiling down into a simple statement of self from a brand perspective [can be very difficult]. Adding on top of that the consensus and collaborative nature of decision-making makes the process of doing that, maybe not as much the content, but certainly the process a bit more challenging than again in that kind of linear hierarchical sort of private sector alignment.
So those are nine things that we find that are often different when serving nonprofit clients and the net impact of that is that we need to build engagements, work scopes, and work plans in a way that is informed by these differences, and you need to be expecting to operate within a different environment and with a different set of key issues, different agendas, different emotional and rational factors in characteristics of these of these different organizations.
So that’s it for now, but Branding for a Better World, often, is about common elements within the marketer’s and the brand and business developer’s tool kit, but also distinctive elements. Whether it’s the reasons why brand storytelling seems to be of particular importance in the nonprofit sector right now or whether it’s how service providers and agencies like us can be aware of and get ahead of some of the differences, hopefully this One Big Idea provides some degree of food for thought or at least some nods of agreement if that’s what you’ve also experienced.
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