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- Join the Club: Build Brands by Engaging Story
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Brand-building expert Adrienne Weiss says that the key to a strong in-house brand is to create and engaging story that unfolds before your customers.
Adrienne Weiss has helped create award-winning brands and identities for the likes of Steven Spielberg, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Taco Bell, Hyatt Hotels, Wal Mart Stores, the Milwaukee Brewers and dozens of other leading companies. While her think tank—the Adrienne Weiss Corporation—develops logos, packaging identities, signage, environmental graphics and the like, its real specialty is concept development—taking an idea and giving it depth, meaning and the ability to connect with customers. To explore some of these topics, we recently interviewed Weiss at her Chicago offices for this special branding issue of FOOD MANAGEMENT.
Let’s start by asking what might seem to be a pretty obvious question—what exactly is a “brand?”
Weiss: In our group, we look at branding as storytelling. There is an inspiration or a story idea at the base of every business, and that story is both emotional and intellectual. The process of branding is just like writing a book, expressing that story in words and pictures. It is the emotional connection of your customers with an idea. I’ll tell you what it is not—it is not the militant use of a logo!
Think about branding as a filtering process with four components: the emotional idea, the intellectual idea, the words and the pictures. To establish a brand is to establish your core story and to turn it into a filtering tool you can use as you develop your business.
The idea is to force every purchasing and management decision through that filter. This allows you to create a consistent brand for your customer, and helps you establish a consistent culture in your organization to deliver it. That’s especially important in foodservice, because you often have minimum wage workers delivering your brand.
How do you find a story if you run a foodservice operation for an institution, like a hospital or a university?
Weiss: If there is an exchange of money or value, there is a business, and it has a story to tell. Your readers should think about their businesses as if they were countries with their own languages, ceremonies and customs. What is the St. Luke’s Café way of doing things? If it doesn’t yet have a way, then you need to develop one as you develop your brand story.
If you do your branding well, you become a club that people want to belong to— so think about what it means to be a club member. Think of yourself as running a club within the institution or organization.
Most of our readers have a very specific challenge in terms of making their brands appeal to the same potential customer base day after day. How do you keep a brand fresh in a situation like that?
Weiss: I know this must sound redundant, but it gets back to telling the story! You story is not static—it is a changing, living thing. It has chapters.
The most dangerous thing in branding is a business person who thinks he or she has got it right, that the branding job is
done. A brand is a process, a journey—not a single answer. A brand is established in the storytelling, in the unfolding of the story over time and in different ways.
That doesn’t mean everything about the story changes—it is more that the story needs to respond to the customer, to where the customer is coming from at any given time.
If his interest today is in scale, you tell your story with food quantities and presentation. Tomorrow it might be about healthfulness, and your display may talk about fat grams and freshness and ingredients. Next month it may be about fun, and you respond by telling your story in an entertaining way. The key is to keep the core story, the filter, intact. Each new piece must build upon the others.
What’s the most common thing that goes wrong in concept development?
Weiss: One of the biggest problems is what I call “third-hand vision.” Typically the “big cheese” in an organization has a vision. He calls together a room full of world class image implementers—artists, agency people, architects, food specialists, menu designers and so on. He stands in the center of the room and does a lot of hand waving and emotional outpouring, trying to communicate his vision to them. Then all the people in the room go back and try to communicate that same vision to their staffs.
By the time the job is really underway, it is like playing a game of telephone! How can this be right? It is a praying game. The chance of it coming together as a wholistic concept is very small when everyone is interpreting a third-hand vision.
So how do you avoid that?
Weiss: The key to establishing a successful brand is to fully articulate it before you call in the implementers! It needs to be written down, drawn out, expressed in words and pictures, and expressed in a way that shows how your story will drive the decision of everything the business does.
Ideally, you should also define the attitude of your operation and people, the tone it will have, the taste level, as well as the humor and intelligence level of your customers.
Once you have done this, then your concept can be communicated. And then it should be like a bible, with the bible being distributed to all of the people who will be in charge of actually delivering the brand. It is a matter of establishing control of the brand right at the beginning.
If you do this well, then your operation becomes a club people want to belong to, to be a member of. And remember—the dream can be bigger than the thing. A food court can be more than a food court. The most generic idea can be wonderful if you articulate it as an idea or story that resonates with people.
Starbucks is a great example: it is such a success as a story that it doesn’t even have to sell coffee!
When Starbucks promotes itself, it doesn’t talk about the bean. It talks about rap music or jazz or literacy or the sixties—anything but the bean. They are talking about things that establish an emotional connection with people who want to hang out. That is their story.