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Why Brand Managers Must Sweat the Small Stuff… and it’s ALL Small Stuff

Marketers have always had a difficult time justifying their budgets.

My grandfather was a Mad Man – working in advertising and marketing from the 60s to the 80s for a series of companies. (He eventually wound up a Sr. VP of Marketing at Doskocil Foods moving armies of pepperoni.) I remember being a wee lass when he said “When times get tough for a company, marketing’s always the first thing they cut. It should be the last.”

His point was that, to many, marketing seems almost optional; it is intangible – not a product ingredient, nor a transportation method, nor a storefront. And even worse for the line item: it’s unmeasurable.

Well, it was until the Internet. Thanks to Google Analytics, we had the illusion we could measure our marketing efforts – and in some channels (PPC), this is still possible. And yet, what about the myriad touches made between consumer and product/service before the checkbook’s opened? The awareness. The affinity. The perceived value. The brand.

In a world with practically limitless purchase options, brand is everything.

Brand: The sum of insignificant* things


To my mind, brand is about two things: expectation and experience.


Chunky green coke
Virtual paper mache.
© 2013 Katie L. Fetting

Coca-cola delivers on an expectation every time a can is cracked. Drinkers expect it to taste and look a certain way. Imagine if you noticed (with no prior warning) the Coke was a chunky slime green just as you were taking your first gulp. My guess is most of us would assume there was something wrong with it and spit it out.

We feel secure when we buy a branded product. We trust that a McDonald’s French fry will taste the same in Omaha, NE as it does in Miami, FL – or even St. Petersburg, Russia.


The most successful brands also create an experience through continuity and attention to detail; like a good assistant, great brands anticipate. Whether it’s a bad user experience with a difficult to open package or the speed with which a page loads on-site, smart brands keep the consumer front and center, constantly asking themselves, what makes for an ideal customer experience?

The best brands imply there is a single source for this experience: them.

Why details matter

Brand managers are inevitably challenged by people within their organization who don’t understand why something as insignificant as using the wrong Pantone color matters. Why be so fascistic about fonts, typos, improper punctuation, and the like?

Really… Who’s going to notice?

Answer: Everyone. Whether consumers are conscious of them or not, details matter. They matter because they imply quality – care, consistency – and impute value. These are the cornerstones of brand.

How a business takes care of itself can’t help but effect how consumers think that business will take care of them. Good, consistent branding implies a good, consistent offering. The reverse is also true.

A few elements that may affect conscious or subconscious value judgments in consumers:


Awesome typo
Cropped to protect the guilty – Image credit: entros


If this is the “reliability” of something they’re using to promote their business, do you want them printing your wedding invitations?

A dated, poorly performing website

If your website looks like it was created for dial-up, a customer may extrapolate that you’re providing a dated product or service. (Making your site fast and easy to navigate are also musts. In the oft-cited Amazon study, they found a 1% increase in revenue for every 100ms improvement in site speed. It pays to make things easy and functional.)

Lack of consistency in color, font, and logo

Without consistency, there is no brand. A brand’s entire raison d’etre is to establish trust and expectation. If you aren’t consistent, you underperform on the expectation, breaking the trust. In addition, inconsistency costs more – imagine if Coke started manufacturing blue cans… How many people’s eyes would skate right over them looking for the red? Or, worse, buy Pepsi by mistake?

Who gets this?

I’ll admit it: I have brand heroes. Companies who seem to perfectly synthesize promotion, product, and practice. Following are a few of my favorites:


Remember that stunning day you opened the box of your first iPhone? It was like unveiling of the Ark of the Covenant (though some haters will say the results were roughly the same).

iPhone4 box layers
Image courtesy of Wikimedia contributor HereToHelp

The instant you spy an Apple product, you KNOW it’s an Apple product, even if you haven’t seen the logo. Apple’s simplistic, perfectly designed and executed materials (be they products or promotion) allow them to charge a premium. And that’s what brand is all about.

High-end hotels

A few years ago, I spoke at the Austin Film Festival on screenwriting. I stayed at the Stephen F. Austin Intercontinental, and let me tell you – three days of stomach-twisting nerves were worth it the moment I entered my accommodations.

I believe the suite would have hugged me if it could: plush towels, high-end bath products, bed sheets I want to die in… Everything was top-of-the-line. And I FELT top-of-the-line.

What’s the ROI on that? Would I have stayed there without the insanely luxurious bathrobe?

Possibly. But without those seemingly insignificant details, I certainly wouldn’t be writing about the Stephen F. Austin now – or fantasizing about returning. If I go to Austin, Texas again, I WILL be staying there. If any of my friends go to Austin, I will tell them to stay there. And they may tell their friends.

Now how much is THAT worth?


Canlis outdoors at night

Oh, Canlis… It’s my life’s greatest ambition to afford to eat at you more than once a year.

I first saw Canlis on the Food Network (Top Chef!) and resolved to grab grub there. The view, the salad, the FILET. I knew it would be pricey, but…

I should have been able to write the meal off, because as a brand manager, it taught me a semester’s-worth about creating a capital-E experience for customers. From the moment one arrives at the valet to the moment that same valet brings your car around, you are (and feel) taken care of.

Sure, it’s expensive. And the prix fixe menu leaves no surprises – in the price at least. My partner and I were expecting three courses. We received six.

The moral? Good brands overdeliver.

They specialize in “oh, by the way, try this on us.” Of course, that brand has built EVERYTHING into the cost of its product. The illusion of a “bonus” – of added value – however, is imperative to guest happiness and retention.

Incidentally, Canlis “brands” everything, whether it’s their reception area or the chocolates they present you with as you leave. (“Oh, this is just something our chef whipped up today.”) This unity of brand – simple but gourmet, elegant but approachable – is spectacular.

Virgin America

Virgin America seatback mesh
Photo by Scott Mackenzie

To me, Virgin America’s increasing dominance in the American commercial airline field is due to one thing: pockets. Sure, they have innovative touchscreen ordering, and engaging safety presentations, and fancy black-clad attendants.

But I think the thing that separates them from everyone else is a small, seemingly insignificant detail: the additional mesh pocket.

Typically on a plane, you find a single, pleather pocket in front of you, filled with sticky Skymall magazines and loud credit card offerings. It’s dark, dank, and generally not the most hygienic square-inches onboard. Put your iPhone (callback!) in there and you may never see it again.

So what does Virgin America do? They provide ANOTHER pocket. A mesh pocket that sits in front of the other one. This mesh pocket is EMPTY, it’s clean, and you can see through it, so any personal items a passenger puts in there are visible.

This is a tiny thing. I’m sure some bean counter at Virgin Corporate was asking about the ROI on this mesh… But you know what? It helps me. It makes me believe Virgin is thoughtful. It makes me believe Virgin is cool. It makes me believe Virgin is BETTER. And I’m willing to pay a premium for that.

Yet again, that’s brand.

A few other examples:


Have your realized even the RECEIPTS at Nordstrom are made of heavier paper? A seemingly trivial detail, fancier receipts push Nordstrom’s message that EVERYTHING there is just… better.


I’m not sure they’re the first manufacturer to include cup holders and expanding sunshields, but for me, these fine points established Honda as a thoughtful brand concerned with my comfort.


Strict adherence to brand style, a brilliant pricing strategy (accessories are so affordable individually that you end up buying all of them), and a social community second to none, GoPro is a textbook example.


McMenamins Google profile

Another Pacific Northwest staple, the McMenamins empire covers hotels, restaurants, music venues, wine, spirits, beer and more. They have a very interesting brand because they’re committed to each of their various and varying properties having a singular identity.

So how can you be unique but familiar?

McMenamins strikes this balance with their whimsical logo: a beautiful, happy sun.

You’ll find this sun on wine corks, soap bars, on the side of buildings – but no matter where you see it, you think McMenamins.


Tiffany's blue

They own a COLOR. Enough said.


And they own an animal. Unlike many animal-brand associations (Leo the Lion for MGM studios comes to mind), the Clydesdale isn’t dependent on where you see it, or in what context. A Clydesdale is Budweiser.


In conclusion (you knew I’d get here eventually), when the general store only carried one type of flour, brand wasn’t important. However, in today’s ecommerce-driven world – unless you want to compete solely on price – it’s all that separates you.

There will still be some, however, who ask: but what’s the ROI? “Show me how these inconsequential “details” – that you’re asking me to pay for – affect our bottom line.”

But brand doesn’t work that way. It’s about the total being greater than the sum of its parts; this is impossible to fully measure. With an incalculable ROI, marketing in general, and branding in particular, is often the first thing cut, when as Grandpa said, it should be the last.

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  1. Here’s an interesting story I like to tell. A mattress retailer produced a television commercial and spent good money running it on TV. It was about how their delivery staff wore booties over their shoes when they entered the customers’ homes. They got the idea for the commercial from their customer satisfaction surveys. Their clients commented frequently about how much they appreciated it.
    Meeting expectations = good satisfaction
    Exceeding expectations = excellent satisfaction
    It all sounds great until you realize they spent good money to downgrade exceptional customer satisfaction into good customer satisfaction and heaven forbid if one of their vans runs out of booties.
    This is clearly not an example of how to improve customer service to increase satisfaction.
    The moral of the story is to give every customer a booty call.

  2. This is a great post! Nothing matters more than the details of a project. It shows you care and respect the image you’re trying to portray.

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