Branding Case Study: The Prize of Emotional Connection

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Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts

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I’ve always been a Starbucks addict.  The brand has been part of my daily routine for about 15 years and I bet I’ve been the first ring at 5:30am more than 100x’s in over 4 locations in 3 states.  In short, I’d consider myself a loyalist.  The routine stopped in March 2014 when I moved to NJ to acquire LM Foods and there just isn’t one between Pt. A (Gym) and Pt B (company).  The experience has let me learn a few things as my Venti Black Dark Roast went bye bye…..

I’ve become what marketers call an “experimenter.”  Open to new experiences.  A coffee Swinger if you will.  In general, Dunkin Donuts probably gets 75% of my coffee $’s, but that is probably falling to 1/3 fast.  For me, they are not Starbucks for a variety of reasons:

  • They simply haven’t figured out the “Third Place Concept” and the vibe that goes with relaxation.  I think I’ve taken advantage of the Starbucks leather seats <10% of the time.  But the vibe, even if I only feel it for 90 seconds matters.  Life is hectic, and escapism matters.  
  • Dunkin can’t seem to understand that selling 2 day old bagels is not smart.  And they make this mistake often, and when you tweet them about it?  Black hole, no response. Why bother having a Social presence if you fail to engage?  
  • Dunkin is one of the great franchises in America.  But you simply never know what kind of experience you will get when your greeted by your Dunkinista (is that a word?). When I’m one of the first customers showing up when its still dark outside, and am on trip #30, shouldn’t you know who am?  

There’s a funny thing that happens when a Brand does not earn an EMOTIONAL connection with its consumers:  They start to wander.[Continue Reading…]

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Johnny Meatballs: A Case Study in Branding & Launching A Business

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There has NEVER been a better time to pursue your entrepreneurial passions than TODAY.  

Back in the Old School it was hard to create awareness, branding and communicate a message.  It was all about good old fashioned elbow grease and generating word of mouth buzz. Some call it HUSTLE, one of the top traits from the Old School.    

Today’s New School technology affords everyone the opportuntiy to…..

  • Live your passion, and share it with like minded people

  • Build an audience

  • Replicate your message to thousands or more…..assuming it’s worth spreading.  

Everyone has the opportunity to create a Brand, both personally and for their business.  And like all things worthy in life, it takes real, hard, consistent work.  It’s not easy, but it’s within everyone’s grasp.

Here’s a great example I discovered over Superbowl Weekend:  Johnny Meatballs.

I’m biased, he’s a NJ boy and building a business on one of my favorite foods.  And I wouldn’t bet against him.  Enjoy the videos and I think you’ll see why.  


The lead up to a big event, Superbowl and “big announcements.”

And great Superbowl press coverage

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The Market For Talent & The Missing Element

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This week I spent some time in the “talent market” after posting a job on Linked-In for a fairly senior position, specifically called out as the “Go-to” person for the functional area of the company.

Here’s my notes.

  • In less than a week a flood of people posted, I lost track of the total, so let’s call it 50.
  • About 80% of the total came within the first 24 hours of posting.  Fatigue set in fast.  
  • Only 3 people chose to attach a cover letter.
  • I printed every resume’ and put them in Pile A & Pile B.
    • Pile A:  Do they have key paper credentials (degree & relevant experience) that would allow them to do the job?
    • Pile B:  No qualifications, toss.
    • Pile A wound up with about 40 resume’s, only 10 were tossed.

The Sub-title of Hustle or Bust is:  “Where Old School Meets New School.”  (OSMNS)

I am fascinated with the pace of change that is happening around us, and those that CHOOSE to stay out front, those that do not, and how it all comes together for competitive advantage.  Here’s some thoughts I had relative to OSMNS.

  • The cover letter is a lost art, or at least < 5% chose to attach one.
    • Note:  The 3 I received were OK, not breath-taking, but the fact is with the majority choosing NOT to do it they certainly stood out.
  • Resume’s, at least in my experience serve one purpose: Get you to a LIVE conversation quickly.
  • They will be scanned fast!
    • I spent < 10 seconds on each one.  I bet I’m not alone.  To a job seeker, this could come off as “unfair,” which I understand.  Fair or not, it’s reality.

The Brutal Market Reality:  80% made the cut as being credentialed, with a 10 second scan.  Said differently the MARKET is telling me that there are plenty of choices. Lots of capable talent, in fact more that post CAN vs can NOT perform.

When there are PLENTY of choices, alternatives and diversity of options, that is great (although a bit overwhelming) for buyers.  It can be hell for sellers.

Is there a more critical “Market” than the market for Talent?  One more competitive, and maybe subjective?

  • For the seller (job seeker), they are looking to either put food on the table, or advance their  standing in life.  All sellers are “selling” for different reasons, but the moment they hit “apply,” the selling process has begun.
  • For the buyer, they are looking to fill a series of need for their business.  Like Sellers, all BUYERS are different.

Building on the “Market” analogy, think about your grocery store experience.  Have you ever walked down any aisle, pick an aisle and get the overwhelmed feeling?  You can’t decide because there are so many choices of Soda, Chips, etc?  You either can’t tell the difference or you can’t size up the differences in flavor, price, size?  You may even give up and abandon the aisle all together. Brands fight this war daily, and it’s why Packaging is so important.  At least it gives the product a CHANCE to be picked up and stand out.

This is not a story of Packaging, although if some were slicker than others, I may have made different decisions for who to reach out too, so it does matter.

There’s plenty of competence out in the market place.  Lots of great educated people, with great diversity of experience.

However, there’s a formula required to enable that competence to stand out.

hustle + competition = opportunity

Leave out the Hustle and you are gambling.  You’re at the mercy of a 10 second review and being put in a stack with 40 others.

The good news for those that are competent, but may be lacking on the other side of  the equation?  There are plenty of them. Make the choice to add a little Hustle and go after it.  Your odds of standing out are HUGE.

Rarely does a market exist where a 100% controllable choice, that only costs time will allow you to stand out.  Talent is that market.

Competence will put you in a pile. Hustle will yield opportunity.  

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The $ Shave Club: Disruption in Action

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Sometimes disruption happens right under your nose.  Take a look at the men’s razor blade category:

  • Needs to be continuously replenished.
  • Massive market.  Let’s call it 50% of the world’s population.  Maybe a bit less if you don’t mind facial hair.
  • Huge barriers to entry.  How can you get into this category?
    • You’re not just going to “up and build” a factory, it takes massive capital and expertise
    • Your also not going to unseat one of the established brands (Gillette) and their massive branding investment.  
    • If you could conquer these 3 barriers, you need to get the consumer to vote, which means you need access to distribution.  In CPG, that’s the health & beauty buyer at the retail chains.

So how do you gain a slice of an industry dominated by the 800lb Gorilla? 

  • Find a source of supply.  Nearly every category has Private Label & Contract Manufacturing supply.

  • Forget the middleman in the distribution chain, go directly to the consumer.

  • Build your own brand, unconventionally.  Use social media, be edgy, create stories.

  • Keep expenses LOW.  To the bone….

In other words, do everything DIFFERENTLY than the industry leaders do.

How do you know when the big guys are sleeping at the switch?  They begrudgingly acknowledge the up-start.  Then they immediately cling to their existing business model, defend it and ignore the very threat in the first place.

  • “We have products at those price points too!”
    • Maybe, but can I find them when 80% of the shelf space is covered with your more expensive stuff?
    • But you won’t deliver it to my doorstep will you?  Of course not, that would annoy the retail buyers wouldn’t it?

You see these types of up-starts more and more.  SODA stream comes to mind.


If Coke or Pepsi do not have a team figuring out how to buy and integrate this company into their model they would need their heads examined.  When I say “team”, I’m talking about a team of less than 10 people.  In an urban office, FAR away from headquarters, made up of strategic thinkers with minimal internal experience within Coke or Pepsi.

Sometimes experience is what prevents the 800lb gorillas from seeing a disruptive model.

Blinders off.  

Disruption lenses on.

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A Brand Immersion Experience Gone Wrong

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All sorts of marketing learning can occur on vacation.  Between the dinners out, exploring new neighborhoods, and maybe more than anything……entertainment for the family (primarily kids), can provide a lab for real life execution of business.

Sometimes it’s easier to evaluate other businesses when you are away from the daily grind.

Our city vacation in Atlanta started with Legoland Discovery Center.  My 6 year old son lives for Lego’s.  I loved them too growing up, much more than video games, and being a business geek I was anxious to see them pull this off.

  • Housed in an up-scale mall in the Buckhead section of Atlanta.  It didn’t hit me at first, but this was a “sign” for that was a bit odd.
  • Admission (purchased on line) was $11 per person, $15 live.  A tad on the pricey side I thought, but I guess it’s all relative to other “entertainment” options like a zoo or museum.
  • Plenty of decorations, a small section of carnival rides, play mats, a jungle gym and a small movie theatre.  And an over-priced rip me off snack bar, of course!
Legoland Atlanta

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  • First, the kids loved it.  I guess we can end it there, since that what matters right?  They spent 2 hours playing on the jungle gyms, running around, shooting the Lego cars up and down the ramps.
  • Parent’s, not so much.  Our take-away was that it’s a step up from the play center you’ll find at Mcdonald’s, just better branding and some neat displays.  And the obligatory “gift shop” at the end.  Certainly not the first spend of $’s we’ve experienced that under-delivered, and it won’t be the last.


There are very few brands that can pull off a standalone “experience” aside from their core product.  This is what Lego is trying to do, create a stand-alone entertainment option, generate some $’s (assume they are aspiring to at least break even) and create another point of interaction with their brand.

This could be one of the most ambitious feats in business.  There is a reason very few try it.  Because it is HARD, it’s not the core business and it raises expectations significantly, and that creates a danger zone.

I couldn’t help but think what the CEO or CMO of Lego would think if they wandered through Legoland Atlanta the day I did.  I am sure they would be asking themselves some basic questions….driven from the choices that were made before they built the center….

  • Does this represent our brand well?

  • Are we “wowing” are customers and providing excellent value?

  • Are we LISTENING to what customers are saying about their experience?  (social media has given plenty of real feedback!)

  • Are we better off with it or without it?

Brands need to be careful thinking they are bigger than what they really are.  Very few brands can approach a risky venture with high expectations with a “passive” approach.  It requires, in short, a massive dose of HUSTLE.

On the same trip, we experienced the exact opposite of Legoland, an up-lifting, unforgettable experience I’m happy to recomend and return too: World-of-Coca-Cola.

Is it fair to compare Legoland with Coca Cola’s version?  On the surface, it’s fair to assume Coca-Cola has the financial resources to outdo almost any brand.  But that’s just on the surface……I believe the outcome would have been the same if both brands were given an identical budget and told to “go build it.”

Have you ever been to a local town bakery that has a line a block long, while your big box national supermarket bakery doesn’t seem to have been shopped for 2 days?  Who has more financial backing?  $’s are sometime a lazy way to attribute success.

Creating experiences that BUILD a brand, not erode it, first begins with choices.  Than the real work begins.



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Understanding Innovation: Learn From What “Wows” You!

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Innovation is easy to learn from real life experience.  How?  Find products you consume that simply “wow” you, make you talk and make you want to learn more.  Experience them, research them, and reverse engineer to YOUR business model if there is something worthy of “borrowing.”

The process is simple:

  • Find a product you use that makes you talk about, brag, say “try this!”

  • Study the packaging, one of the most critical elements of branding

  • Do some basic research:  Check out the social channels, website, basic Google news/buzz

  • Write down what’s working for the product, ultimately what can be “borrowed.”

Innovation does not need to be a R&D break-through to work.  It also does not need to be driven by costly third party agencies that have a knack for mystifying the process.

But it does need to be special to matter.  More importantly, all the elements of the marketing mix must come together to create a brand loyalist.  Here’s one that nails the equation.

My wife brought the following home:  Popcorn Indiana, “Black & White Kettle corn.”  It was so good the devil must have made it.

Popcorn Indiana Black & White Popcorn

We are not big popcorn eaters, but we are always hunting for the new & different.  This hit the mark.  The combination of chocolate and salt is out of this world.  Guess what else is?

  • The packaging – There are so many health & “quality” claims I’m almost convinced I’m eating a banana.
  • The social media call-outs.  Even better?  Their social media engagement.  They get that social without being “social” is useless. They clearly have standards in place on response time, engagement, and are clearly having fun.  And why not, this is popcorn right?
  • Their website and product line-up – Flavors and unique combinations is what they do; now I want to try the others.  Multimedia, clean images, they simple messaging very well.
  • The founder of the company is somewhat of a serial entrepreneur… can learn a ton by learning about a founder.

I don’t know specifics about the Popcorn category, but it’s fair to assume since it’s a salty snack that it is dominated by big players like Frito Lay.  Low cost producers with massive distribution networks and marketing spending.  Can’t out-spend or “out-muscle” the big boys.

But you can always build a winnable plan that doesn’t confront them head to head.

Innovation should be at the top of the list for differentiating a business.  Being different and unique always serves a simple purpose:  It makes direct comparisons difficult.

When that happens, price is less of a factor…

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The Cocktail Napkin: A Game-Changer From The Old School

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My love of the Old School stems from it’s simplicity.  Things moved at a slower pace back in the day, but that didn’t mean it was LESS focused on generating big outcomes.  I-phones and all their apps did not exist in the ’80s.  But guess what did?

Cocktail napkins.

They worked.  Some of the world’s greatest businesses were launched on cocktail napkins.

Usually, 2 people are having coffee, or of course….a “cocktail” and the conversation moves to something game-changing.

  • An idea…..

  • A Problem

  • A Solution

  • A radical concept

The people both agree that it’s worthy of pen and paper and needs to be captured.  Only none are within arm’s reach… the cocktail napkin enters the scene.

So what’s the big deal about something so old school and simple?

  • Something magical happens when ideas go from brain to paper.

  • They become tangible.  They become refined.  They start to evolve.

  • Pen and paper, or napkins are powerful, if you use them.

It is simply amazing how many people have plenty of great ideas, or problems that stay stuck in their head, never to enter a piece of paper.  Sometimes the difference between SOME results and none are simple the difference between getting it out the head, and onto something tangible.  Think of it as step #1.

Next time your at Starbucks and something hits your brain, reach for the napkin.

Write it down.  You will be one step closer to something better than letting it linger in the ‘noggin.

Brains are like filing cabinets, at some point they over-flow.

over-flowing cabinet

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Five Businesses Born at a Bar


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Business Lessons from Goodfellas

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I am a sucker for a great Mob movie, and Goodfellas is tops of the list in my opinion.  The modern day Godfather.  Great soundtrack, food scenes and some of the best performances from De Niro, Pesci, Liotta and Sorvino.

Some of the greatest scenes are lessons in business.


There is nothing sexy about the Mob, although Hollywood portrays it that way.  Nonetheless, it exists and has survived for many years because it is run very similar to a business……below clips provide entertainment & learning value.  Hustle is not just about hard work; it’s about finding learning value in odd places.  This certainly qualifies as an odd learning moment!  Enjoy!


The Lessons of Goodfellas


It all starts with your Market, the Customer.  Understand their expectations and look to over-deliver at every moment.

” Never Rat on your friends…..and always keep your mouth shut.”

Keeping confidences in business is one of the most important things for establishing trusting, productive working relationships.  Want to ruin relationships, do the opposite.  This isn’t about just keeping a high school secret; it’s about knowing when and how to communicate sensitive information.  Lack of discretion usually feeds office politics & gossip that which rarely translates to positive RESULTS.  Results are what matters, not chatter.


Effective teamwork, even in the most challenging circumstances not only improves results, it improves one’s quality of life.


Specialists matter, understand people’s true talent.  How often do companies make the mistake of promoting the best sales person to be a sales manager?


Branding:  Who you associate with matters and says as much about you as your own actions.  



The great Siskel & Ebert on reviewing Goodfellas

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Smart Marketing or a Loss of Humanity @ Abercrombie?

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A business insider story, which ironically reported news that is over 5 years old caught the world by storm last week.  The CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch clothing retailer had some controversial statements about who they market too, and more importantly, who they do NOT want to associate with.

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO

‘In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends.  A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.’”

I will assume this quote is 100% accurate and NOT taken out of a broader context.  After spending over an hour trying to find something to the contrary, I found nothing on-line, on the company’s Facebook page, or official releases to prove otherwise.

Marketers everywhere need to take a hard look at public examples like this.  They provide great learning opportunities of what can work well, and not so much.

First, what can I agree with on this quote?[Continue Reading…]

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The Hail Mary: Rarely Works in Sports OR Business

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The term “Hail Mary pass” has become generalized to refer to any last-ditch effort with little chance of success.  The origins come from football that denotes a long, low probability pass at the end of the half or game.  Picture 5 wide receivers sprinting to the end zone while the QB scrambles, buying time while he launches the football with all his might 50+ yards, while 7 or more defenders greet the sprinters in the end-zone.

Hail Mary Pass in Business or Football, low probability of success

It’s certainly a captivating play, and thrilling when it works.  But the facts are not on its side in terms of success rate…..which is hard to find but if it’s greater than 10% I’d be shocked.

All too often businesses try their own version of the Hail Mary.

It could be the struggling brand in a cash-strapped company that tries a flashy new ad on the Superbowl.  Or the high profile “white knight” CEO hired from the outside, paid huge $’s to save a highly leveraged, declining company.  You get the idea:  Big, bold, low probability moves trying to be a catalyst for success.

I couldn’t help but think I watched one this week on the premier of one of the most successful TV franchises of all time:  AMERICAN IDOL

American Idol 2013

Fox’s American Idol kicked off its 12th season on Wednesday night with a 19% decline in viewers.  Many reasons have been given for the decline, from greater competition of similar shows, more channels,  and a general “tiring” of the brand.  19% declines are huge when you’re at the top of the ratings heap, this translates into 4 million+ fewer eyeballs.  AI brought in 3 mega stars (joining Randy Jackson) as judges in Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and one the top female recording artists of all time, Mariah Carey Hollywood Reporter cites their compensation:  Minaj @ $8mm, Urban @$4mm and a staggering $18mm for Mariah Carey to Judge for 1 year.

Hail Mary sign #1:  Splash Big names with even bigger compensation.

“Big compensation” is always relative, and with AI pulling in north of $750mm in ad revenue, one could argue that $30mm on 3 new flashy judges is small potatoes.  I can understand the argument.

What’s the bigger risk?  I see 2 flaws.

1)  The assumption that great singers can all of the sudden be great judges of singers, which is a major difference.  How many star athletes went on to become great coaches?  Very few.

2)  The belief that these mega personalities can not only be effective judges, but the chemistry between them will not be toxic.  Building on the sports analogy again, if very few star athletes can be remembered to be great coaches of a team, can you think of 3 star athletes become coaches on ONE team!  Enough said.  This is what American Idol is trying to pull off here with this judging panel.

The great Casey Stengel famously said:  “Finding good players is easy.  Getting them to play as a team is another story.”

Teamwork matters in business.  It’s an Old-School “fundamental.”  

So for me to call the judging decisions on AI a Hail Mary is not that big of a stretch.

Regardless of where you stand on that argument, businesses are always well served to understand their customer base, and what strengths they have that generate its foundation for success.   If you’re a fan of AI, many come to mind, but a few I would consider are the “bedrock” of its success.

  • It feels like the “American Dream” playing out on TV- The unknown, everyday person gets discovered and hits it big.  They are given a shot, and they make the most of it.  Its aspiration playing out on the TV, kind of like ROCKY.
  • The stories were never-ending.  It’s not just the discovery of talent.  It’s the talent + the unique STORY.  People love a great story behind the talent (substitute talent for BRAND), and AI told the stories with great skill.
  • The Water cooler factor is huge.  How many times do you remember the conversation of last night’s episode being carried over the next day at work?  It could be the great performance or bizarre audition, but chances are people were talking.  The buzz factor matters.
  • The CUSTOMER matters.  They matter SO MUCH that they determined the next AI.  Long before social media took off, AI recognized the power of the customer, they put it front and center so much that it’s the foundation of the name and the show itself.
  • The judges mattered.  It is undeniable that the show has discovered great talent, and the judges deserve great credit for this.  Simon often comes to mind as the greatest, albeit most critical judge.

I think of the above 5 as the American Idol’s “Success Formula.”  You can argue which one of these formula elements are most important.  I personally feel that the “judging” factor, while important, is last on the list of importance.

Every successful business has their formula, or recipe.  [Continue Reading…]

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