COOL STORY BRO
Branding has come a long way from slapping a logo on a product or putting it in the hands of a celebrity endorser.
Companies these days have to work on the look of the product or service and tell a larger story about what it stands for and how it was made. Now this has gone one step further: some agencies are getting involved in the operations and manufacture of the product, too.
Take for instance FINE, a digtal brand agency in Portland, owned and run by two brothers, Kenn and Steve Fine. It came from not the artsy world of ad agencies but from a cycling clothing factory and then by building websites.
In FINE's cheerful office on Southwest 11th Avenue behind the Portland Art Museum, Kenn Fine leads a mini tour of the ranks of headphone-wearing staffers, whom he says are vaguely divided into producers and creatives. (Producers are more project solution and client managers. They also have their own soundproof box in which to take calls and walk around. "We pace more on the phone. You circle, you can do laps.")
Fine adds that everyone has a desk but people are moving around constantly. "When we need ideas you've just got to go get them."
The layout suits the operations.
"We're a hybrid company," Kenn says. "We do brand and then from the brand we do environment. You see everyone's kind of clustered together, designers and developers, we're not siloed at all. One person hands it off to the next person to the next. That's called waterfall but we have people shoulder-to-shoulder doing stuff at the same time. Lots of pointing and bickering, a lot of friction about making things better," he says with a grin.
He states the modern mantra of everyone from scientists to ad men to teachers to management consultants: "We find that there's a lot of unintentional collisions that are really productive."
One magnetic wall is being used as a mood board for designing a hotel concept. It's going to be a renovation of several buildings in Glendale, California. The client wants a campus of hotels with different brands aimed at different types of consumer. FINE sold them on psychographics.
"We're still ruled by our primitive brain. Our neocortex likes to pretend it's in charge but anyone who's been around the block once or twice knows that's not the case. So, when designing a brand, you have to think about psychographics rather than demographics. Because you don't know how someone's going to behave. Someone whose last child has gone off to college a year ago tends to act a heck of a lot like early 20-year-olds who just got their first big paycheck," Kenn said.
They are also developing a hotel management brand. The hotel buildings don't exist yet. It's a pure customer service concept.
Looking at a different mood board, Kenn Fine explains, "We're developing not only the look of it but the spiritual center and how it's going to speak. We have to develop a whole persona, a comprehensive identity."
The mood board has photos of fresh vegetables, embossed leather, letterpress printing ... analog things. Fine says it's in the early stages. They are just "charting the lines." None of it will go to the client.
"A client might say 'Hey, we're going to open a hotel, but I have no idea what kind of hotel, at what room rate, what the experience is going to be like, what it's going to look and feel like, how it's going to operate, how you're going to sell it.' We collaborate with them to build that," he said. Here's the big idea.
"We're talking about having a brand that the only way that it demonstrates its own presence is by the removal of something. So, there's all-natural materials. Things can be stamped, things can be cut, taken away. But there's nothing that is going to be manipulated or painted. And you can see that it comes off with this really, like, raw authentic, genuine realness. That's what these things here are just communicating."
No artifical flavors
As they build the brand platform they develop "experience principles" or concepts that thread through every level of a brand. The "no manipulation" or "no artificial flavors" would become something the entire organization focuses on, in order to make sure that there's a continuity in their delivery.
"When that continuity begins to be noticed, and hopefully cherished by the people enjoying the products, it becomes then owned by the brand. And this is just one of myriad different concepts that we would play with in order to create the signals that we're sending from a particular brand that we're hoping it resonates with an audience."
The number of principles FINE weaves into a brand ranges from about three to eight. If they find themselves arguing over what the hotel staff uniforms will look like they've gone too far into the weeds and need to "elevate up a step and get up to a conceptual motive for those artifacts."
Kenn Fine didn't go to design school, ad school or get an MBA. He learned by doing, he says. (FINE began in San Francisco but the Portland satellite office has outgrown it and he moved here 11 years ago.) He did get a degree in philosophy, and has thought a lot about what modern branding is.
"Companies don't own brands. They own the operations in order to drive signals that shape brands in someone else's mind. I don't get to tell you what my brand is. The best way to think about it is, you can equate your own personality to a brand. You don't get to tell me who you are. If I were to behave as a human and the way a lot of brands behave, I would say, 'Not only am I good looking, I'm intelligent and wealthy!' And then I sound like a schmuck, right?"
He says when FINE does brand lead business building, it engages with organizations much deeper than a typical marketing agency, where they're just putting a thin veneer on a product or service.
"Brand is about starting at the center and building outward. And at the center, you have to know why you're doing, what you're doing, how you're doing and why it's unique. And that has to connect with a value proposition, the needs of your audience."
"(Winemakers) come to us knowing 'OK, we're gonna put some juice in a bottle and we want someone to pay $350 for it.' And then we say, 'All right. Well, now you've drawn a couple dots, then let's figure the rest out.' But you have to map it clearly. If you want someone to pay $350 for 750 milliliters of grape juice, there's a bit of a story be told."
Part of what they do is embellish the stories of the production. Was it a small winery, a family place, biodynamic, etc.? People like that kind of thing.
Fine compares it to chocolate, and how, if there are a $2 and a $3 chocolate bar from which to choose, most people will choose the $2 bar. But if you add a $7 bar to the lineup, the same people will choose the $3 one.
"Because now you're worth it!"
The luxury chocolate might have a display case or a video to tell the story. "You learn that chocolate bean farmer, Mr. Gonzalez, has got a family farm in Ecuador and there's his kids harvesting beans right there, and his wife and his daughter's roasting right there. And I carry you through, and at the end, there's a $7 chocolate bar, the chances of you buying a $7 chocolate bar are greatly enhanced, because you understand why it's valuable. That's a $7 chocolate bar and you can get a Hershey bar for 23 cents?"
This whole storytelling aspect of trying to sell something has come on strong in the last two decades, he says.
"Globalization has made the availability of any product so you have myriad options and can choose a dozen at any price point you could imagine. So, what's happened is consumers now are seeking more levers of decision making. Because even if they are still commodities, you need data in order to assess which are the commodities you're going to purchase," Kenn Fine said.
Suddenly having a relationship with Mr. Gonzalez and Ecuador makes you feel like you are functioning on a whole new level of how you engage in the world and the global community.
"That's a lifestyle brand where I may sell chocolate, but my purpose is elevating the quality of life of cocoa farmers. You're not buying chocolate, you're buying my mission to improve the well-being of cocoa farmers."
The Five stages of consumption
FINE faces the challenge of figuring out how to tell a story in "anywhere from a 10th of a second to infinity," from the scrolling feed of Instagram to the down-the-rabbit hole research possibilities of the internet.
"That's what makes it difficult, and interesting, because people will go online and spend half an hour reading about your chocolate. We break it down to the stages of decision making."
He says the five stages are notion, interest, education, qualification and selection.
"Some people do well in each of them. Younger folks tend to trust their gut, and they jump from notion all the way to purchase, like, 'Oh, that's me! Because this celebrity was wearing those shoes, I will buy those shoes and because I have already identified with that celebrity, whether I can afford them, I've already decided.'"
After the purchase, "Then the customer lifecycle starts around its arc of me now maintaining you and keeping you in the loop."
Those five things? He came up with them.
"I've got a toolbox of things that I've used over 30 years in the business."
Fine says he was always very entrepreneurial. He built and sold companies. One was a mountain bike clothing company. While designing better looking and more functional clothing brand was what initially inspired the company, when someone asked him to help them with issues with supply chain and factory financing, and when it worked, he kept getting referrals to other businesses. He discovered he liked operations as well as design.
"I realized that I really loved jumping into complex problems, and that I'm a 0-to-60 guy, not a cruise control on the highway guy. Once everything's running, it doesn't keep my interest long."
He left the mountain biking company to begin his own company focused on using his experience to help clients connect between brand, design and operations: FINE was born. His wife joined FINE and started selling, and that brought a lot of people trying to figure out how to solve similar problems in building brands and businesses. And then his brother Steve joined and drove the technology component.
"We launched some of the first websites on the planet in 1993 and 1994. They were janky as all get-out. They were dialing in on CompuServe."
But FINE prospered.
"The experience in building a business and operations is what helped us grow into a small brand agency which was all about presentation: What do you look like and what you sound like. In the last decade those two worlds, our operational prowess and our branding expertise, have come together. And so we're able to help companies in a way that most agencies aren't equipped. We can help them build a company that expresses the brand. We build brands from the inside out and experiences from the outside in."
One example is Bode of Nashville, a group-travel concept that is like Airbnb crossed with a hotel. Friends travel in groups and share a kitchen and living room.
"The real special times are the times between planned events. It's that when you're in a shared space," he says.
The imagery they made is of good-looking, diverse people playing cards and drinking around a coffee table. "Bode says our consumers don't want 15 beers to choose from. We're going to give you three local, authentic, really awesome beers. There are not a lot of choices but the choices are awesome."
Luxury versus commodity
Fine also does work for the super luxury Regent hotel brand, which is owned by Intercontinental. "That's luxury: whatever you want, you can have. A commodity is when you have to follow their rules. How easy is it to walk into an IKEA and just get a spatula? Not easy. That's a non-luxury experience."
He continues: "The magic component of branding is understanding that brands that resonate are not really talking about the measurements and the outputs and the inputs. It's about connecting with people in a conversation about something in their lives that they're already thinking about, not trying to convince them to buy a product."
If somebody wants to get healthy or fit, the brand shouldn't talk about push-ups and sit-ups, but about self-awareness, self-improvement, lifestyle change and being your best self.
"Abstract concepts that are motivating someone thinking about getting fit. To do real brand development, it is a journey. This is not a late-night TV sale - although the people who do those are masterful. But it's about building relationships over time, so that you can get true resonance and true loyalty," Kenn Fine said.
Fine compares it to knowing someone for years, and then suddenly bonding with them over one conversation. "You have to stay there and build trust. You're lucky because there's a transaction. Like in hospitality, there's a transaction that allows you a chance to prove yourself. 'I got a 10-minute conversation at a water cooler. I really hope they like me!'"
The staff wear a lot of hats
Caroline Moloney, Director, Brand Strategy, says it's getting harder to stand out in the marketplace. "Everybody's starting to say the same thing, telling the same stories: We're natural, authentic. It starts being empty, meaningless. What we're finding is brand is following through on that promise through tactics, operations and your customer experience. It's not just about the story of the top. It's meeting them at every step of the way. We look at the entire cycle, the entire customer experience, making sure that whatever your story is, the way that you're differentiating yourself, you make sure that you're proving it in every at every step of the process, all of your customer interactions."
The idea is to think the overall customer journey through. Just one thing can derail it though.
"I was just staying in a hotel last weekend, and the fire alarm went off at 2:30 in the morning. It's hard to get past that. If you had a great meal or great views, you just remember that."
"One of the first things that we all do when we arrive at a hotel is we take pictures of everything: walking into the lobby, your room, what the minibar looks like, what the bathroom looks like, how the room is set up how the desk is set up, you see so many different hotels, and it's always good to like compare notes
Ashley Bird, Managing Director, Creative Services, works as the left-brain side of Creative Services, bringing in new clients and making sure they're profitable. Most of the work the get is by referral, either word of mouth or someone seeing their work digitally.
"We are not really a cold calling kind of company. I think it's more striking up conversations about the things that we've seen and the experiences that we've had, or the moments that we've had that lead to a conversation about digital work."
Kenn Fine chips in, "It's hard to call someone and say, 'How'd you like to spend a half million dollars on brand repositioning?' Now, if we we're able to tell a complete story, you say, 'Hey, we see there's money you're leaving on the table? We can get it for you.' And we do that sometimes."
Lori Dunkin, Executive Director, Digital, says there's a lot more things that takes to make a website run, and they all have to be choreographed. "Content integration, social media, generated content, CRM…"
Steve Fine says websites have gotten more complicated, and there's specializations in these little new categories of how people interact with the site. It's weaving all of these things together. There are 25,000 companies on the martech (marketing technology) poster," he says, referring to an amazing logo-cloud pinned up in the lounge.
Dunkin stands in front of the poster:
"You might have an enterprise level website that has an HR team who needs a career area, with a way for people to see and apply to jobs and know their benefits. You have a product team that's managing the content for the products and maybe the analytics and the commerce platform for product. You might have a brand team that's focused on the overall storytelling message, a promotions team that's focused on video integration, social media and digital engagement and how that stuff's transacting through. And you might have a handful of other departments in your company and they all converge on like what they need out of the websites. You might have six or eight teams inside of a client company that have to be working together for the first time because their website and hold them all. And each of them might have different tools that they're using, the sales team might use Salesforce to manage lead generation, so mobile marketing needed this and HR needed that."
FINE goes in and tells them which tools to use with an understanding what sort of customer facing navigation the content strategy needs to be, and how these things can invisibly sit behind it all to allow for a uniform experience.
One retail booking engine they like is Commerce7. A hotel booking platform would be SYNNEX. FINE also has its own, open source content management platform, called "fae". Wine sites that work well are Cuvaison and Ashes and Diamonds.
FINE is doing a large project from the UK inspired by Catalina Hoffmann in the later living category. "We're building a brand that is going to revolutionize the way the UK thinks about what it's like to age. They found us because of our work in hospitality. They're going to build villages with integrated wellness and mindfulness and physical therapy and cognitive work and so that you can actually maintain your youthful self, your long as possible."
They can't just trap the executives in a room and show them a PowerPoint.
"That doesn't work! There has to be a transparency and vulnerability so that we can you actually have access. Bode is a wonderful example. Phil Bates, the CEO of Bode, is tenacious about transparency and inclusion." This includes back of house hospitality staff.
Getting companies to open up
Parachuting into another firm and telling them how to change their processes can cause friction.
"But we're often welcomed in with a lot of transparency and vulnerability, which makes us be able to do way better work. We're working right now with the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. And they have one of the most engaging, mindful and thoughtful teams that I've worked with a long time. They're transparent, they're vulnerable. They're honest, and hard work, and we're going to work hard."
With a renovation they're hoping to "fulfill the Southern California dream of the visitors because people go there because they're looking for the California dream."
Fine is always looking for the next cool thing.
"I freakin' love London, right now. It's just so vivid and there's so much diversity. I like going to Shoreditch, it's got so much energy and entrepreneurial, the underground clubs and galleries. I'm really a bit smitten with London right now. It's come alive in a way that is pretty exciting. And I'm hoping it doesn't get quashed. I hope it doesn't get crunched by Brexit. (As in the EU) you can mix and match and go through entrepreneurial things and do exciting things and try new places. I know people from Madrid and Italy who are now living in Paris doing something you know, it's like, I know so many people are stuff that's going on, and I'm really frightened about this xenophobia driving people out."
Fine works with organizations operationally to help them send the signals to build the right brand in the minds of their consumers.
"We did the comprehensive brand overhaul of Kimpton hotels that made them a market leader again. We also helped clarify the Monaco product, which is one of their collections." There's a Monaco in downtown Portland where visit in NBA players used to stay before The Nines got the deal.
"We also did their Palomar, which is a more upscale, clean kind of fresh vibe."
It's not just Fine who thinks of hotels like this, like flavors at a Salt & Straw, but his whole staff. When they hit a new city they often change hotels every day and report back.
"We go in and we talk to everybody, we become the most gregarious, curious people that have ever visited the place. We'll drop into a town and we'll hit probably 30 to 40 venues in a couple days, restaurants, cafes shopping districts, hotels. Every one of the team stays in a different hotel and every night, we hit every tourist destination, every neighborhood and barrio, we hit all the eccentric places, we'll already some of the underground things."
Do some cities have nothing beyond the mainstream?
"That is happening more and more. The authenticity is being reduced, the rents are driving it away. In that situation we try and create a destination brand. Something that is worth going to, and staying at, just that place."
FINE a brand agency
ADDRESS: 1140 S.W. 11th Ave #200, Portland
Tagline: A design-minded, human-centric, hyper-engaged, digital-savvy, awesome-inducing, brand-believing, definition-defying, hyphen-dependent, un-agency-like agency. Since 1994.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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