Part One: Know Thy Position
31/10/17 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , , , , , , ,

Part One: Know Thy Position

This article is the first of a 5-part series about Vigor’s strategic framework.

Imagine that you’re preparing to interview for your dream job. As you carefully comb through your wardrobe, you imagine how each item might strike the interviewer—this shirt is conservative, these glasses make me look smart, these socks are coy, et cetera (we all think about these things, right?) In a moment of inspiration, you make the daring move to wear dressy boots to the interview. “Hard working and independent,” you think. Then, to your horror, you’re seated behind 5 other candidates who made the same bold, unique decision as you.

Now you’ve gone from hard working and independent to a lazy lemming.

You expected to create one impression, but because you didn’t know what you were up against—what the interviewer’s other options were—you ended up making the opposite impression.

The problem was not with the boots, but with a poor understanding of your context. Such is the life of a brand that has a great product but no positioning strategy. Because no brand lives in a vacuum, the experience you offer will always be understood in direct comparison with other options that your patron considers to be most similar to you.

In this context, the worst thing that can happen is that there is little understandable difference between you and the competitor. It’s not enough to have a secret sauce or different colored chairs. You need to put as much space as possible between you and your competitor, you need that space to be along an axis that your patron cares about, and you need to express that space in everything from your personality to your product.

In other words, you need a positioning strategy.

Let’s reimagine the horror-show interview. This time, you have photos, bios, and even the planned wardrobes of every other candidate that will be interviewed that day. You glance through your intel.

“No boots” you mutter to yourself.

As you begin to understand your context, you realize that even though there are 30 other candidates, they’re all playing one of three basic cards—”hard-worker,” “young blood,” and “the veteran.” These are the occupied positions in your market. You re-work your resume, your look, and your whole approach to provide a 4th option, “the strategist.” Now, all things being equal, rather than having a 1/30 chance of getting the job, you have a 1/4 chance, because you are the only candidate representing your position.

But all things aren’t equal—your newfound focus on your position actually allows you to prepare better than anybody else. You rehearse topics relevant to your position, your wardrobe is on-point, and your resume emphasizes your strategic experience. So you now have two layers of advantage: a clear position and better execution within that position.

You crush the interview. You get the job.

With the power of positioning, you can elevate yourself even in a crowded market. That’s why it’s the first step in every strategy we create.

Step two is coming soon, and it’s all about knowing thy patron.

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Killing the Colonel, one snicker at a time
20/08/15 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , , ,

Killing the Colonel, one snicker at a time

Originally posted on

For those of us desperately holding onto the cusp of the Millennial category, Colonel Sanders is an icon we remember fondly. He was a jovial Southern gentleman who only cared about making darn good fried chicken for his guests. He may have been a bit overprotective of his recipe, but who cared when the product was so delicious? It was a simple vision, and it worked well for KFC. Over the decades The Colonel was slowly phased out, as was the original brand name, Kentucky Fried Chicken. There wasn’t a big uproar as The Colonel himself has passed in 1980, it only seemed natural to move on. But now he’s back, or should I say his weirder and borderline creepy doppelgänger is back making a joke of the classic, beloved spokesperson icon.

Here’s a quick catch up for those who haven’t seen KFC’s recent advertising: KFC launched a new campaign featuring Saturday Night Live icon, Darrel Hammond. Hammond adorns the Colonel’s look from iconic white suit to prosthetics that gets him sort of close to almost looking just like Colonel Sanders. The prosthetics isn’t the only synthetic parts of the persona as Hammond adopts an exaggerated Southern accent and persona to the point of mockery. This week a new set of commercials for the fried chicken legend were launched featuring Hammond’s former comedy compatriot, Norm MacDonald. The spots derive from the same idea, same prosthetic Colonel Sanders, with a worse attempt at a Southern accent. So bad, in fact, he can’t keep the accent going long enough for a 30 second spot.

KFC advertisements featuring Darrell Hammond:

KFC advertisements featuring Norm MacDonald:

It’s quite evident that the agency responsible for this new angle is not from the South, nor have they spent any amount of time immersing themselves in Southern culture. It’s a result of basing cultural assumptions on commonly accepted stereotypes.

With every exaggerated snicker in the advertisement I cringe more and more.

Sure, I’m a Yankee-turned-Rebel, but since moving to the Southern US (ATL!) five years ago I’ve become quite fond of the mentality we have here. Southern hospitality is quite real and Colonel Sanders was a representation of that dying, endearing quality. With every exaggerated snicker in the advertisement I cringe more and more. Every second the mocking accent thickens I get a little more put off. I find myself asking: Is this really worth selling more fried chicken? What’s so wrong with being a good person, and actually caring about guests? Do Northerners actually think all Southerners are backwards idiots?

How would I answer in my opinion? No, selling more chicken at the expense of a benevolent icon is not worth it; there’s nothing wrong with being a beacon of good will and hospitality; and, yes, it seems Northerners think us Southerners are snickering fools.

KFC has a lot of endearing qualities. It sells comfort food that evokes feelings and thoughts of home, friends, family, and nostalgic good times. Those feelings are extremely powerful triggers for any generation, even the elusive Millennial. Far too often marketers and creatives rely on quippy wit, and tongue-in-cheek playfulness to drive storytelling and messaging. While we all enjoy a well-played pun, and timely jab of wit, sometimes that’s not what the brand’s communications demand. KFC is one such case.

I realize that KFC is a global brand, and not everyone understands the roots from which the company and its spokesperson originated. However, that’s no excuse to take the lazy approach of furthering a stereotype that misses the mark completely. KFC has the opportunity to use the good-natured, hospitable icon to create a tangible, authentic spirit inside and outside the four walls of the brand experience. It’s something no other competitor can own, yet they’ve chosen to tarnish the opportunity with a weird, mocking impostor.

One final note, the new KFC website is quite awesome.

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Consumer connections are the key to impactful marketing
17/03/15 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , ,

Consumer connections are the key to impactful marketing

Originally published in Restaurant Hospitality Magazine, read the article here.

The other night a new commercial for a restaurant chain caught my attention. It wasn’t the content nor was it the offer that snatched my curiosity, but rather the utter monotony and lack of anything new. The moment sparked a dive into my mental catalog of restaurant advertising and marketing, and one glaringly blatant commonality sprang out: Something vital is missing.

Restaurants are pretty good at following the “rules” of advertising and marketing. Show your product to create enticement. Offer a deal to woo a new trial or lukewarm previous customer. Create excitement and put it on for a limited time to “act now before it’s too late.” For decades this playbook was successful, but the game has evolved. It’s no longer enough, and the reason is both simple and complex. It’s devoid of any emotional tie or offering beyond the restaurant’s core offering: food.

Things have changed in consumer perceptions of brands. In general, they don’t trust advertising. Scandals in ethics, poor quality of food and the proliferation of the effects of processed products have corroded the legitimacy of restaurant brands. Traditional advertising has become akin to listening to a politician on his podium. It invokes skepticism and, as a result, gets tossed aside as mostly false or a downright lie in some extreme cases. One thing is left floating in the consumer’s mind: “So what? Prove it.”

Furthermore, product-focused advertising is all about the brand and not about consumers and their lifestyle. It’s an entirely selfish, “me-me-me” mentality, which makes it easy to ignore. Think about it. When is the last time you ever engaged with a person who told you how amazing they were? “Hi, I’m Joseph. I’m the coolest guy you’ll ever meet.” I’m surprised you got through that sentence without wanting to walk away. Restaurants must shift their focus to the consumer’s lifestyle and attitude, and what their product does to enhance them. Brands that do this successfully—such as Chipotle, Starbucks and Apple—have created a connection that’s hard to break, thereby fostering loyalty and brand evangelism.

Something bigger must be present beyond the latest ad campaign to not just attract, but also connect with consumers. Having a passion for something beyond the core product helps brands rise above competitors that focus on price and product alone. In the extremely aggressive and saturated restaurant industry this passionate purpose elevates a brand above the din.

A passionate purpose creates an emotional connection engrained in the company’s culture from the top down, inside to the outside. It permeates through every part of the business. In order to follow suit, a brand has to stop squawking flimsy promises and start walking the walk. That’s a tall order for any company, but one that is vital for gaining market share or halting a decline in some severe cases.

So, where does a brand start? Here are three tips to start the shift from product-centric marketing to emotional communications that are driven by a passionate purpose.

1. Toss the food focus and dig deeper to focus on people.

Although a good product is important, and showing your delicious glory shots of food shouldn’t stop, people are attracted to brands that reflect core values and beliefs that align with their own. They buy from brands that bolster and communicate their lifestyle and attitude. When someone buys a Starbucks coffee, it represents his or her busy lifestyle and concurrent need for catering to his or her specific demands. Think of the person who orders a double grande latte, skinny, heated to 130°. That is someone with demands and little time. The Starbucks brand represents a status that consumers wish to convey to the world, and that statement is what attracts and retains their loyal patrons.

2. Pinpoint a passionate purpose that connects with consumers.

Finding and pinpointing a passionate purpose may be something that comes easily to some brands, but can be much harder for others. It’s not as simple as brainstorming ideas in a room. It has to make sense and connect with people, while being legitimate and authentic. That only comes from in-depth consumer insights, brand strategy development and a dedication to threading the passionate purpose throughout the organization. Missing the mark won’t necessarily hurt a brand much, but sticking the landing will make all the difference.

3. Inject that purpose throughout every part of the business.

Chipotle’s renowned dedication to sustainable products, sourcing and the fair treatment of livestock connects with consumer interests because they live that passionate purpose. Chipotle has done little on-air advertising, instead relying on their actions to spark word of mouth. Actions do speak louder than words, especially in a situation where credibility is in question. Chipotle’s actions across the board add weight and credibility to their passionate purpose.

Considerations for purchase have increased in complexity. They have less to do with a restaurant’s product or deal, and more to do with what buying the brand communicates to world on behalf of the consumer. While good food and service are important, they have reached parity, leaving people looking for a larger reason to patronize one brand versus another. Brands like Starbucks and Chipotle convey a status that connects with consumers beyond utilitarian food offering. They tap into emotions that are bolstered throughout their respective companies, and it’s that emotion that needs to be injected into restaurant brand marketing. That’s the missing ingredient.

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Could the future of restaurant brands be going up in smoke?
15/01/15 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , ,

Could the future of restaurant brands be going up in smoke?

It’s official; Oxford Dictionary named “vape” the word of the year. Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve noticed these newfangled apparatuses dangling from people’s mouths emitting puffs of what looks like smoke. Vaporizers and e-cigarettes are a rapidly growing trend for smokers trying to quit and nonsmokers looking to try something new. If your first “vape” encounter happened on the street or outdoors, you probably didn’t give it a second thought, but what if it’s encountered indoors like an office setting, or while dining at a restaurant?

Vaping isn’t smoke, it’s water vapor, but the perception of “smoking” is still inherently tied to the act. When someone vapes at their desk, or a non-smoking restaurant, there is an immediate pang of exasperation. That reaction is a residual, knee-jerk effect from the years of anti-smoking initiatives that have been proselytized to the masses for decades. However, that doesn’t mean that vaping indoors should cause the same reactions or be subject to the same restrictions as actual smoking tobacco. In fact, this less harmful activity poses excellent opportunities for brands to further integrate into consumer lifestyles having positive brand impacts. That is if lawmakers don’t have their way first.

Currently there are few laws that restrict vaporizing beyond age limitations, however; the bureaucratic drums of politicos are getting louder and legislation is looming. Instead of waiting for Washington to dictate whether or not vaping should face restrictions similar to tobacco, restaurant brandsneed to address policies on the subject sooner rather than later.

… the issue on whether to allow or disallow vaping in the restaurants is wide open for interpretation leaving restaurants vulnerable to negative experiences …

I asked people in the restaurant industry about their vaping policies to see where they stood, and to gauge the industry’s level of proactive thinking. The responses I received varied responses from dodging the question outright to several stating they handled it on a case-by-case basis. Those responses indicate that the issue on whether to allow or disallow vaping in the restaurants is wide open for interpretation leaving restaurants vulnerable to negative experiences with the vape enthusiast public. Furthermore it brings to a light an opportunity for brands to think beyond basic policy.

Seemingly the biggest issue facing vaping in restaurants specifically is how the vapor can change a sensory experience for the other guests. Although many vape enthusiasts like to say there is no scent emitted from the devices, non-smokers argue otherwise. In an industry where the experience is defined primarily by taste and smell, this can cause problems for guests. There is also the question of whether or not to allow employees of the restaurant to vape on the job. Outside working hours, potential insurance issues relating to the long-term effects of vaping have already started to raise questions.

Policies should be considered for both guests and employees alike. As health experts continue to push for more scientific studies on the effects of e-cigarettes’ “second hand smoke,” some employers like UPS are already requiring an extra $150 in monthly insurance premiums1. McDonald’s currently allows employees to smoke regular and e-cigarette devices, whereas places like Starbucks completely prohibit the use of either2.

When it’s all said and done vaping could be bucketed as a bad habit like smoking making policy decisions mandatory for brands in all industries. However if legislation doesn’t come to fruition brands will find themselves faced with a big decision: either ban it all together, or leverage the vape movement to diversify and to build cultural brand assets.

Vaping doesn’t have to be a negative. In fact, there are many brands today that have equity in certain flavors that could benefit greatly from jumping on the vape movement. The obvious industry for leveraging the opportunities for olfactory gustatory branding is restaurants. As a way to spark ideas for said industry, the creative team at iris Atlanta took a stab at some ideas. Click here to checkout some potential restaurant-inspired vaporizer flavor advertisements that could smoke out the competition.

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Why Olive Garden can’t be saved by branding
03/10/14 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , ,

Why Olive Garden can’t be saved by branding

Originally published on Branding Magazine. Read the full article here.

A few weeks ago Olive Garden experienced the beginnings of what could quickly turn into a coup. Starboard Value Partners, a firm that owns an 8.8% stake in Olive Garden’s parent company, released a 294-panel slide show on the poor performance of Darden’s Olive Garden brand. It was brutal, but undoubtedly honest. In this report the investor group viciously tore apart many of the problems that have been allegedly causing the decline of the restaurant, citing both product and branding as issues. Yet they failed to note the intrinsic relationship between the two: branding in the basic sense won’t fix a subpar product offering. Unless strategists are allowed to be actively involved with defining and changing the brand’s offering, a company is just prolonging and inevitable decline.

It’s easy to see why Starboard Value Partners is up in arms as the report points out critical issues like “salads are overfilled and regularly dressed with more than the recommended amount of dressing” and “breadsticks get cold as they sit stale on the table.” It seems to reach a pinnacle when they point out that salting pasta water, an Italian cooking basic, isn’t even a standard practice at Olive Garden. Starboard’s presentation goes further into the dynamics of the restaurant, including it’s marketing and branding practices, tearing it part limb from limb.

It’s well known that Olive Garden has been sinking over the last few years, and that brand changes were made earlier this year to stave off decline further. For a lot of failing restaurants, brand is the usually the first thing analyzed and changed. Maybe it’s because it’s relatively easier and quicker than a complete overhaul, or simply because the burden of sales is commonly thrown on the back of the marketing department. There is an underlying problem to this train of thought: Branding can’t save a business without the truth to back it up.

As we delve into the process of extrapolating key ideals, consumer focuses, need states and the multitude of other elements that go into the proper development of a brand, there is one core piece of the puzzle cast aside – the product. When it’s all stripped down to the nitty gritty, the product is what matters most. The product, and the purpose behind it, of any company is the epicenter of its existence, and too often the brand development team is left out of any key decisions regarding it.

During the discovery and distillation of the brand development process a litany of information is gathered and analyzed. The information isn’t just focused on advertising, marketing and design. It delves deep into every part of a company. With all of the information garnered and distilled in brand strategy exercises and research, the value of a restaurant’s product and potential of what it could be become quite clear. Ignoring those insights is negligent, but something operations teams often seem to do. The results can be seen in Olive Garden’s current situation. They made a half-baked attempt at altering the food, yet ran directly into overhauling the look of the brand’s identity.

Starboard’s report isn’t an amalgamation of information created out of thin air. It’s all based on market research, consumer polling, and other resources to get an in-depth understanding of the situation. Those tactics are exactly what a true brand strategist would orchestrate as they go through the brand development process. If those in charge of operations worked in tandem with teams tasked with developing a brand, the company could alter the core offering so the brand development team can convey something of substance.

My suggestion to the world of restaurant operations professionals out there is this: Work with the branding team to share the information divulged in their process, then make positive changes based on that information. Hold off on any design, marketing or “branding” work until changes are appropriately implemented. Only in that scenario can a company, restaurant or any other kind, honestly be ready for a brand facelift.

The good news for the Olive Garden is they do have some elements of their product that define the brand. Despite being blasted for their breadsticks and salads, those two items are iconic for the restaurant chain. They obviously need a bit of work on some of their menu items, but let’s give them a little bit of leeway. 2014 has been a year of positive changes for the restaurant brand from kitchen to redesign. Maybe Starboard can ease up a little bit and let things take effect. I know it’s easier said than done when staring at an ever-decreasing stock value, but rebuilding a brand to be a meaningful part of culture again takes time.

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10 Common Brand Archetypes in the Restaurant Industry
10/11/13 Branding & Marketing Strategy , In the press # , , ,

10 Common Brand Archetypes in the Restaurant Industry

Originally published on Branding Magazine

Most of us have used, or are at least familiar with using, archetypes as a way to identify and profile a core audience. There have been quite a few books written on the topic outlining numerous archetypes. Although informative, the books rarely focus on a specific industry as unique as the restaurant industry.

Archetypes tailored to food service may seem similar to other industries, but there are a few key differences. Their biggest point of differentiation is that individuals often shift their archetype. Whereas one day Mrs. Jones may be more interested in a hearty meal, the next day she wants to eat healthier. This means that a person may take on the characteristics of many different archetypes in any given span of time because of the emotional and physiological drivers of food and eating.

These frequent shifts further emphasize the need to use archetypes as a way to focus brand efforts as opposed to the more literal approach of demographic research in the restaurant industry.

In my experience as a restaurant brand strategist, I have encountered a number of archetypes that seem to pop up frequently. The following isn’t an exhaustive list, but I’ve outlined the 10 most common that I’ve seen.

Couponer. We all know them, the do-anything-to-save-a-penny kind of person who clips coupons, buys Groupons, and Scoutmob’s their faces off. These bargain hunters will go to just about anywhere that has a deal. Although they’re not loyal, they do spread the word about a restaurant, as they like to brag about their latest savings.

Hipster. If it isn’t mainstream and corporate, they’re going to love it. Keep it lo-fi and DIY. They like the craft and respect the handiwork that goes into every little detail. Hipsters like to keep a good thing a secret, so don’t expect them to tell the world about an establishment. They are incredibly loyal as long as it never becomes a mainstream joint.

Superparent. Well-informed young people are bearing children and they’re bringing their penchant for research, knowledge and understanding to the table. They want food that’s good for their family. This means more organic, gluten-free, and produce sourced locally. Affordability for the quality is also a hot button issue for this archetype. The Superparent will exercise a great deal of loyalty, and are likely to referring other Superparents to a restaurant.

Evergreen. Some may call them hippies, but this group has grown beyond that stereotype. The Evergreen is looking for a socially responsible company beyond the cuisine and food offering. What light bulbs are being used? What green efforts are being employed throughout the operations? What is the carbon-footprint? The answers to these questions appeal to the Evergreen greatly. A socially conscious establishment will find unbreakable loyalty and a word-of-mouth fanaticism from this archetype.

Pseudo-Foodie. They’ll talk about things like “presentation” and “chef-driven,” and they’ll pay attention to textures and technique. They’ll do this at a fast casual restaurant and post about it in great detail on Yelp. These are the Pseudo-foodies and they clock over 20 hours of Food Network programming per week; adding to their “expert knowledge.” You won’t find much loyalty, but will find some word of mouth as they must be sure let everyone know about their latest culinary experience.

Fitness Freak. One part Healthnut, and one part Gym Rat, the Fitness Freaks seek a healthy restaurant experience that caters to their dietary needs and, often more importantly, their image of fitness. For them, Fitness isn’t just something they strive to attain, it’s a lifestyle they constantly announce to the world. Healthy food options, with nutritional information are going to appeal to this group.

Straightshooters. No hoopla. No nonsense. They just want good food for a good price. They’re not worried about sourcing, green initiatives, calories, and so on. They want it with the least amount of bells and whistles. The good thing about the Straightshooter is they can be quite loyal to simple brands. They may not broadcast it to the world, but they will be a sustaining force behind any solid concept.

Socialite. Did you just open? Are you the hottest place on the hottest scene? Are celebrities and high rollers frequenting your spot? Then you’re prime for a Socialite to grace your establishment. The Socialite wants to see and be seen. They want to be at the newest openings at the most expensive restaurants. They want celebrity status. They’ll tell everyone they can about your new spot, but will most likely accompany your accolades with a flimsy undermining comment to ensure it’s understood that they deserve better. The Socialite will come back as long as the restaurant is the talk of town. Once it gets quiet, they’ll be on to the next.

Wanderluster. These are the culinary adventurers. If it’s new and unheard of, they’re going to be there digging in. The Wanderluster is looking for a new experience with new, different food. This could be mean extremely new like schnitzel, or just different than the mainstream like Thai. Either way they are constantly expanding their culinary horizons and experiences one concept at a time and they’re super excited to talk about it. The Wanderluster is more likely to be a blogger as they also like to document their experiences.

Manly Man. Don’t let the name fool you. Women easily fall into this archetype as well. The Manly Man wants a heap of savory, deliciousness on a plate for a good price. These people couldn’t care less about your dainty plates of healthy food. They want it good and they want a lot of it. They’re ready to eat well and drink great beer without a second thought to anything but price. They want value, but will pay for the goodness they get. Manly Men also like to talk about their gluttonous exploits and will devote themselves wholeheartedly to their favorite hearty hotspots.

As stated earlier, these are just 10 of the common archetypes I’ve experienced and seen in action. When developing brand messaging and identity, it’s essential that we look to archetypes as a guide, and not as an absolute totem.

What food-lover archetypes have you encountered? What kind of characteristics of brand loyalty to they tout?

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