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Mickey Citarella of ONE Brands: “A great idea can come from anywhere”

Define some higher order emotional benefits that can be the driving force behind your brand. Knowing where to start with a rebrand can be very daunting so often times I like to understand what emotional territories can we play in and own. Are we a brand that is about empowering consumers? Are we a brand […]

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Define some higher order emotional benefits that can be the driving force behind your brand. Knowing where to start with a rebrand can be very daunting so often times I like to understand what emotional territories can we play in and own. Are we a brand that is about empowering consumers? Are we a brand that inspires consumer achievement? Are we a brand that helps people command respect? Are we a brand that brings consumers joy? Starting with some higher order emotional territories you think you can own will really help guide and shape all aspects of your brand. And don’t limit yourself to just one space, explore a few.


As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mickey Citarella.

Mickey spent the first decade of his career in brand consulting, new product innovation, and advertising, working on big name brands like Subway, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, California Almonds and more. He is now the brand manager at ONE Brands, a protein bar company owned by Hershey, and is responsible for content and communications strategy, new product innovation and more.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Right now I am a Brand Manager at ONE Brands, a manufacturer of high protein, low sugar and super delicious snack foods, and quite frankly this job is a whole new world for me.

The first decade of my career was spent at an agency called Sterling-Rice Group where I worked with a ton of different clients (including Subway, PepsiCo, Molson Coors, Almond Board of California, and more), on brand strategy, new production innovation, and marketing communications.

Working on the agency side of things was a super valuable experience because I got exposure to so many different marketing leaders, business challenges, marketing objectives and more. I got to work with, learn from and advise some of the best and brightest in the industry, but I always had an itch to work on more than just marketing and understand the bigger business picture. So, in the middle of this pandemic I reached out to ONE Brands, went through a series of interviews and the rest is history.

Restarting/resetting my career has come with many ups and downs (there are days where I literally feel like I have no idea what I am doing) but growth often comes with tremendous discomfort and I feel like I learning and growing every day.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This is an interesting and difficult question, because I feel like a career is built upon a mountain of mistakes. So just finding one to point out is tricky, nevertheless, one mistake that is particularly acute is the one of the first TV commercials I made for a client.

The brief was to make almonds relevant during fantasy football, after many late nights, thrown away creative concepts and stressful conversations we landed on a campaign we thought was perfect. It was called Fantasy Football Tips: From Fantasy Characters, and the idea was we would have princesses, headless horsemen, sorcerers and more munch on almonds and give fantasy football tips with a fantasy twist. (I’ll be honest writing this right now reminds me of just how ridiculous this idea was).

We got the idea approved, produced the ads, and right before they were about to go live on TV and the interwebs I showed the spots to my wife and she said: “I have no idea what this has to do with anything.” We ended up running the ads, and they performed…okay, but looking back on those, I must say they really didn’t make much sense.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

When I look back on my budding career there are a couple of key moments that really stood out as turning points, but for the sake of brevity I will point out my first and maybe most prominent “aha moment.”

It all started about two months into my first internship. Social media was starting to pique the interest of marketers so my managers at the time asked me to start a deck on why our client, a shower head manufacturer, should get into social media.

I ended up diving into this assignment head first and wrote the entire deck. Then as a 2-month old intern (22 in real life years) I was given the opportunity to present a lot of this deck to the C-suite of our client, and I’ll be honest, I crushed it. But that moment taught me two things.

  • Curiosity, hard work and confidence are lethal combo (but lethal in a good way): When I was given this assignment my curiosity took hold of me and I spent most of my waking hours learning as much as possible about social media so I could truly be an expert in the space. And when I was offered the opportunity to present a lot of the content to my client I confidently said yes and practiced and practiced to ensure I would deliver my slides with authority.
  • A great idea can come from anywhere: I was a lowly intern, but my bosses trusted me to give and deliver an important presentation because I brought a different and unique perspective. Since that point I have always been sure to listen to everyone’s opinion and point of view, because no one is too junior to have a good idea.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

There are two initiatives we have going on that make me giddy with excitement.

Initiative 1: Redefining ONE Brands. We’ve been fortunate to have astronomical growth over the past 4–5 years but COVID-19 has brought on many challenges for the category and the brand. So we are taking a much needed step back to help us reset, redefine, and reignite interest in our brand. This is super exciting because it will serve as the foundation for virtually all of our work moving forward.

Initiative 2: Rejigger our innovation process. I am working with a cross functional team to help reset how we approach innovation and this is super exciting because it is opening the door to new categories, ideas and thinking that the brand has never done before. I think in 3 years the breadth, depth and dimension of our product portfolio is going to look drastically different than what it is today and that is super exciting and energizing.

Ultimately these initiatives will help people because ONE brands inspires a sense of empowerment and control with consumers. Our products are the ultimate crusher of cravings, they fulfil the desires of your taste buds with truly exceptional flavors that taste just like the real thing (seriously try our Maple Glazed Doughnut bar, it tastes just like doughnuts) and they also fulfil your cravings for becoming a better you, because we provide the nutritional positives to fuel you and keep you going and stay away from all the nutritional negatives that weigh you down.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

To perform your best, you must relax and recover.

So work hard. But…

  • Vacation hard (delete your email, turn off your notifications and clear your mind)
  • Weekend hard (spend time doing things that you love with the people that you love without distraction)
  • Evening hard (spend some time winding down from work and focusing on something else)

These moments of recovery are essential for performing your best and neglecting that will quickly result in burnout. It’s like weight lifting (Note: this is coming from someone who has what some may say is below average muscle definition, so take or leave as you see fit) but if you want your muscles to grow you need to work them hard, but then allow them to relax, recover and build before you go at it again. So, if you want to develop a rock solid work 6-pack, biceps, and “bootay” per se, you should treat your work muscles similarly.

Side note:

So many prominent business leaders preach this grind, then grind some more and when you can’t grind anymore keep grinding, philosophy. That approach and ideology is great, if you want to hop on the burnout express and get off at mid-life crisis station. (Yes, I just said that)

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

A brand is a promise: it is setting the expectation of what consumers should constantly receive when they are interacting with your brand.

Marketing is the outward expression of a brand’s promise: Marketing are the processes, tools, and outputs that ultimately find a way to link between your brand promise to the consumer.

So…

Brand marketing is finding a way to really focus on perpetuating your promise to consumers. It is showing the world what you stand for.

Product marketing is showing how your brand, guided by its promise, developed something that helps solve a consumer problem, which further perpetuates the brand.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Investing in branding is like investing in making a really solid foundation before you build a home. It is 100% essential for you to have a sturdy foundation prior to erecting a house because without that foundation you will eventually crumble.

Sticking with the construction analogy, investing in marketing is like building your home. Most people don’t hire a real estate agent to buy a nice foundation. They want a nice home. So, once you build your foundation you need to be sure the home you build on top of it is carefully planned and thought out to make it desirable to the masses.

So ultimately the best combo is to have an amazingly sturdy foundation (your brand) that holds up your beautiful and desirable home (your marketing).

Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?

First, I want to be sure people understand rebranding is not just making a new logo, updating your color pallet, or coming out with a new advertising campaign. It is reengineering the core of your brand and then redoing the output from there.

So, again sticking with the home analogy, you first need to diagnose the problem (Chip and Jo style), do we have a solid foundation, but we need to redo aesthetics? Then you need to update your marketing, and the expression of your brand but not necessarily conduct a complete rebrand. On the other hand, is your foundation crumbling as well as the aesthetics? If that’s the case you need to first redo your foundation, define a new promise, and then build the house around that.

Taking this out of analogy and into real life here are a few IRL instances of needing to rebrand.

  • Your brand promise is out of date and does not resonate with consumers. This can often be seen with a big loss in share, marketing performance failing, and a team of corporate folks spinning their wheels as to how to fix everything and not really having an answer. (Think Old Spice, more on this later in these questions)
  • You want to expand or pivot your company. You started as one thing, say a Greek yogurt company but you want to expand into other adjacent and maybe even distant categories. You might need a rebrand to build a more solid foundation to support all this work (Think Chobani)
  • You have reputation management issues. You need to overhaul everything to start fresh with consumers (Think Uber).

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?

The biggest thing is doing it just to do it. Oftentimes when new marketers come to a brand a first thing they want to do is rebrand, because that is an easy way to make your mark and show impact, but you really need to first understand:

1. If rebranding is truly necessary from a consumer standpoint versus a corporate standpoint

and

2. If you are going to rebrand what this means for the entire organization.

I have so often seen brands want to “rebrand” and think that will be the panacea for all their business challenges, but rebranding is really just the start. Once you finalize your “rebrand” the real work begins because you have to update, refine, redo, almost everything to be sure you are perpetuating your new brand in the marketplace.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.

This might be 5 strategies that are actually a process to help upgrade and re-energize your brand.

Strategy One: Define some higher order emotional benefits that can be the driving force behind your brand. Knowing where to start with a rebrand can be very daunting so often times I like to understand what emotional territories can we play in and own. Are we a brand that is about empowering consumers? Are we a brand that inspires consumer achievement? Are we a brand that helps people command respect? Are we a brand that brings consumers joy? Starting with some higher order emotional territories you think you can own will really help guide and shape all aspects of your brand. And don’t limit yourself to just one space, explore a few.

Example:

McDonald’s is all about joy, so their products, their advertising, their experience must help people feel a sense of happiness and joy, and you see that come through in all of their marketing.

Chipotle on the other hand is all about perspective. They want you to think about and experience food differently, so their menu, their advertising, and their tone is all about making you develop a different perspective on food.

Strategy Two: Define different brand promises and brand missions that latter up to some of your emotional benefits. Once you have identified a few higher order emotional benefits, work with your team, agencies, whomever, to start to define what a brand promise and mission could look like that reinforces that emotional benefit. This will help you to understand which emotional benefits fit best with your brand and how your brand best connects to your consumers.

Example: Nike is a brand centered around empowerment They have made a promise to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world, which ladders up to the emotional appeal of empowerment that is felt both internally and externally.

Strategy Three: Define your identity. Brand identity is the culmination of your verbal and visual expression. Understand how your emotional benefit, promise and mission can craft a unique identity in the marketplace. This is a time to be bold, to be brave and to look at breaking category conventions so your brand can standout and better resonate with your audience. This should be high level to start and then taken down to the tactical level which is strategy four.

Example: In 2017 Chobani, unveiled a new brand identity which immediately became the design crush of every designer on the planet but this identity was more than just a refresh to their logo. It was a whole new way for them to express themselves and this identity permeated across all of their efforts as a brand and company. And this identity allowed them to move beyond a yogurt brand and into a food brand.

Strategy Four: Pressure test this foundational work by translating your thinking into activations. Think about how your design should be updated, think about how the copy on your website should be updated, think about how your advertisements from 320×50 banners to :15 TV spots should be updated. Think about how your new product innovation pipeline should be updated. Think about how your PR would be updated. What I am saying is think about all the different ways your brand could be activated and how this emotional benefit, brand promise and brand mission can inspire new output. If you and your agency partners are drawing blanks or if it doesn’t all fit together. Then it is probably not right.

Example: Sticking with Chobani, they knew their identity leads to powerful activations when they started getting into the weeds a bit and created marketing materials. Their in-store displays took on a whole new life, their website felt clean, modern and fresh and their packaging brought a whole new beauty to the yogurt aisle (and eventually all over the grocery store).

Strategy Five: Invite consumers into the process. Your brand is a promise that you are making to consumers, not your marketing team, not your executives, your consumers. So invite them into your rebranding efforts, learn from them in the fuzzy front end to further understand what your brand means to them now and how your brand can continue to be or become more relevant to them in the future. Allow consumers to shape and mold your brand when you think you are getting close to the finished product, have them poke holes, have them build upon your ideas, let them tell you what they candidly think.

Example: I was working on a large rebranding initiative for a restaurant in the casual dining space. And we had come up with a few different territories. One of which was absolutely beloved by the client, another was in the middle and the third, to put it lightly, was 100% hated by the client. We ended up doing a series of focus groups with consumers of the brand and they all loved the third, previously hated, territory. So, we ended up taking that forward into development and it made a profound impact on a previously floundering brand. So, point being, had it not been for consumers we probably would have developed a brand that did not resonate well with the consumers of the brand.

Strategy Six: Take a stance. So many brands are too scared and they just sit in the middle of the road trying to appeal to all people. But you know what happens to a squirrel that sits in the middle of the road and doesn’t pick a side? It gets run over by a car. Don’t get run over by a car, pick a side.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

One of my favorites, is one of my favorites because it happened when I first joined the wonderful world of branding and marketing and that is OLD SPICE. (Sorry, as this isn’t one of the most original answers, but it is so good).

Old Spice was tired and culturally irrelevant because it tried to perpetuate a sense of respect through an antiquated definition of Manliness. So they sought out to redefine their brand and began playing in a new territory which was this sense of joy, smelling good is a happy thing, and belonging, a new tribe of men defined by a new code of manliness!

This ultimately helped them reshape and refine their entire marketing playbook, ads were updated, design was changed, and internal handbooks for employees were completely rewritten. The new brand they defined was made magical through a 360 overhaul of their entire marketing. And the brand has been a darling in the industry ever since.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would figure out a way to build the world’s most powerful empathy engine. So we could all see and experience life through the lens of many different people. After a person took a ride on the empathy engine they would come out feeling much more united and in harmony with one another. We, human beings, share much more commonalities than differences but we let our subtle differences really drive us apart.

I would love it if we somehow fixed this polarity that divides us and my kids could grow up on a planet where empathy and understanding united us.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When you say yes to something you are saying no to something else. I read this in a book called The One Thing by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan, and it hit me hard.

I’ve always been a yes man. I like to please and I always thought the best way to please was to say yes. New project at work, despite being way too busy, I’d say yes.

Quick favor to help out a colleague, I’d say yes.

Hop on a plane at the last minute to sell in some new business I’d say yes.

But after reading that quote, I realized every time I said yes to these things I was saying no to many more things.

I was saying no to time with my family by living in hotels and in seat 11C on United airplanes.

I was saying no to my health by waking up early and banging out extra work instead of going to the gym.

I was saying no to commitments I previously had by always adding new things to my plate.

This Yes/No dilemma still haunts me today but I always try to think of all the No’s I will be saying before I say Yes.

How can our readers follow you online?

Okay, this is embarrassing but I have totally made my youngest child a Macro-Influencer on TikTok, you can follow “us” there @babygirlcorinne

Otherwise find me on LinkedIn Mickey Citarella.

Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.

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