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Ross Goldberg of Kevin/Ross Public Relations: “Brand Strategy”

Brand development needs to begin with a fundamental Brand Strategy. This strategy should personify why your business exists beyond making money. It defines what it is that sets you apart from the competition and how you want to be perceived by your customers. Organizations need to ask themselves, “What kind of company do we want […]

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Brand development needs to begin with a fundamental Brand Strategy. This strategy should personify why your business exists beyond making money. It defines what it is that sets you apart from the competition and how you want to be perceived by your customers. Organizations need to ask themselves, “What kind of company do we want to be?” and “What do we want to be known for?” There are two ways to answer these questions. One is in a very pragmatic, business sense. For that, the answers could be: one that is profitable; one that has a balance sheet that attracts investors; one that grows x percent per year in revenue and/or profitability; one that consistently has a strong cash position; one that is positioned for merger or acquisition; etc. The other answer would focus on qualities that are far less tangible: a company that is respected throughout its industry; a company whose customers feel comfortable recommending to others; a company that treats its employees with respect and dignity;


As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Ross K. Goldberg.

Ross K. Goldberg has more than four decades of public relations and marketing communications experience, the last half of which as founder and president of Kevin/Ross Public Relations (kevinross.net). His agency has represented clients from a broad spectrum of interests including health care (hospitals, health plans and medical groups), higher education, nonprofit foundations, venture capital, trade associations and many others. His work has included image management; media relations; corporate communications; employee communications; crisis communications; and the writing of award-winning annual reports, op-ed pieces and direct-response marketing materials. Ross also has extensive experience in media training, merger communications and corporate identity/branding.

Immediately prior to founding Kevin/Ross in 1999, Ross was senior vice president of communications and marketing for CareAmerica Health Plans (1995–1998). Before joining CareAmerica he served for a combined 14 years as vice president of corporate communications for the 3.5 billion dollars UniHealth America and for its forerunner, the HealthWest Foundation. Ross’ career in public relations began in 1976 when he worked for five years for the publicly traded Hyatt Corporation.

Ross holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge and a master’s degree in communications from Pepperdine University. He is past chairman of the board of trustees of Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, California, and is a founding executive board member of the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (of the American Hospital Association). Ross is also a founding board member and past president of both the “Trailblazers” community support group at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage and the Journalism Alumni Association at CSUN. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the New West Symphony in Southern California.

Ross is a frequent writer and speaker on topics about which he is passionate, including “restoring public trust in health care.” He has been published in dozens of well-known outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the Journal for Values Based Leadership, the Los Angeles Business Journal, Health Affairs, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Modern Healthcare, the Pacific Coast Business Times and many others. He is also author of the book “I Only Know What I Know” (ionlyknow.com).


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a journalism major and editor of my college daily newspaper, my original ambition was to be a sports columnists. But then I read a great quote that said that the problem with being a sportswriter is that you have to take sports seriously because it is your livelihood and the livelihood of those you cover. That was my “aha” moment. I didn’t want to give up being a passionate fan, so I turned my attention to where else I could use whatever writing skills I had and that opened the door to public relations.

My first “real” job out of college was working for the Hyatt Corporation, and that’s where I learned the good and the bad of corporate life. It was also a time when the line between public relations and other communications disciplines was becoming muddied and the term “marketing communications” began to emerge. I went back to college at night and earned a master’s degree in communications which included the study of public relations, advertising and marketing.

I ended up spending more than two decades in the corporate world, eventually heading corporate communications for a 3.5 billion dollars not-for-profit company. In 1999 I launched the second chapter in my career by starting my own public relations agency, and that’s where I’ve been for the past 22 years. Over those years I have also had the good fortune to serve as chairman of the board of a local hospital, serve on the board of directors of both a museum and a symphony orchestra, and teach public relations at the same university and in the same classroom where I studied. I’ve also authored the book I Only Know What I Know. It’s been a wild ride and mostly (but not always) a fun journey. And I’m not done yet.

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

The funniest mistake I made was writing “seduced” instead of “sedated” when writing an article for a hospital’s newsletter. Fortunately it was caught at the very last minute before going to print … but not before it caused some good laughter around the office. But the most important lesson I learned was also very early in my career when I spoke by phone with a reporter and quickly discovered that I was unprepared to answer the questions he was asking. It was both embarrassing and harmful, and I never let it happen again. I now always remember the words of John Wooden: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I tell people that we are proud not only of our work product but of our work ethic. Normally when agencies are speaking with prospective clients, they provide a list of references who can be called. But we all know that those references have been hand selected to be “the best of the best.” So when we are pitching business, I tell the prospective client to call any one of our clients that they wish. No holds barred. To a one, they are shocked by that offer and tell me that they’ve never encountered it before. I don’t know how many of these prospects have actually taken us up on it through the years, but the very offer itself helps not only to differentiate us but speaks to how strongly I feel about the integrity of who we are and what we do.

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

We are very fortunate in the fact that the majority of our clients are healthcare or healthcare-related. As a result, much of what we do is focused on helping people (in addition obviously to helping our clients), whether it be adopting healthier lifestyles or getting the care they need when they need it most. Through the years many of our marketing communication efforts have been focused around reminding expecting mothers about the importance of prenatal care, or clearly articulating the warning signs of heart attack or stroke, or inviting people to health fairs for free screenings or prompting seniors on the importance of getting their flu shots and visiting their doctor regularly. Over the past two years we’ve: worked with a hospital in Oregon on the opening of the community’s first and much-needed immediate care center; worked with a medical center in downtown Los Angeles in breaking ground on a new patient tower that will provide increased access to the community’s underserved population; worked with a senior health plan in Texas in reminding their members about the importance of medication adherence; and helped tell the heartwarming story about the power of organ and tissue donation by promoting the Donate Life float at each year’s Rose Parade on New Year’s Day. While in truth I stumbled into healthcare as a specialty field of PR, I have come to appreciate the importance of what we do and the fact that we are surrounded by people with good hearts who are trying very hard to do the right thing.

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?

Product marketers operate under the assumption that the best product usually wins. They emphasize the product’s features and benefits, sometimes in large and often expensive media campaigns that highlight superiority. These campaigns often include technical content that offers concrete details on what a product does and spells out how it can solve a consumer’s need. Brand marketers, on the other hand, view themselves in the storytelling business. They set out to create high-level experiences that tell stories to engage prospects’ emotions, swaying them over to support the brand. They may create an entire marketing campaign that builds interest by inviting customers along for a sensory experience. Some people have described the difference as “facts vs. feelings,” which isn’t a bad way to look at it. What an increasing number of companies are discovering is that there is a place for both and that every company, marketplace and industry is different. In an ideal world, these two factions work in perfect harmony to provide customers a choice in how they want to learn about, experience and access a company’s products or services.

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?

In business, things aren’t always as they appear; and some line items that seem on the surface to be superfluous may actually be the very expenditures that need feeding as they can mean short-term success and long-term staying power. Brand building is just such an example, especially in the uncertain times in which we live. The ability to manage perception and influence decisions has allowed many a company to rise above the crowd and actually keep their doors open despite what is going on around them. Yet there is often a misguided gravitational pull that makes marketing, advertising and public relations among the first disciplines to be cut in a financial downturn. This is one of the biggest mistakes a business can make.

It is in fragile times such as we face today that consumers become even more selective on what to spend and where to spend it. When bank accounts and job security are taking a shellacking at astonishing speed, people are not inclined to gamble on the unknown or jump to the latest carnival barker. They want products, services and businesses they can trust. A solid branding program marinates in trust and can help companies position themselves in just such a way. If companies don’t think they have the money for marketing or branding, they should think again. At a time when the pandemic is tearing at the very fabric of the nation’s economy, marketing communications provides the needle and thread that can enable a company to keep its name prominent and positive.

It is easy, and perhaps even tempting, to remain in the shallow end of the pool until normalcy returns to our country. But nobody knows for sure when that will be or what the new “normal” will look like when we wipe the slate clean. The companies that emerge from this current crisis stronger and better positioned will be those whose brand remains strong, whose values remain true and whose reputation remains unpolluted.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

  1. Brand development needs to begin with a fundamental Brand Strategy. This strategy should personify why your business exists beyond making money. It defines what it is that sets you apart from the competition and how you want to be perceived by your customers. Organizations need to ask themselves, “What kind of company do we want to be?” and “What do we want to be known for?” There are two ways to answer these questions. One is in a very pragmatic, business sense. For that, the answers could be: one that is profitable; one that has a balance sheet that attracts investors; one that grows x percent per year in revenue and/or profitability; one that consistently has a strong cash position; one that is positioned for merger or acquisition; etc. The other answer would focus on qualities that are far less tangible: a company that is respected throughout its industry; a company whose customers feel comfortable recommending to others; a company that treats its employees with respect and dignity; etc. These two directional answers are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Years ago we took on an assignment with a pulmonology group in Southern California who wanted to go from relying exclusively on attracting patients through physician referral to marketing directly to consumers. Their name was Consultants for Lung Disease. We rebranded them into the Institute for Better Breathing where they could offer services for allergy, asthma, sleep disorders, etc. We created a new logo and all new collaterals, launched radio ads and even redesigned their lobby and offices. Most important, we worked hard to get all employees to understand the new direction and the expanded role they would each play as company ambassadors. But all of this was possible only because the company was first able to decide upon a brand strategy.
  2. An effective brand strategy needs to be rooted in integrity. The challenge with integrity is you can’t just flip a switch and have it As the CEO of a Fortune 500 company once told me “You can’t wake up one morning and say today I am going to have integrity.” You either have it or you don’t. I believe integrity needs to be driven by the actions of the CEO, and then it cascades from him/her to every employee and every decision that is made. We recently worked with a company in Nevada whose values are gratitude, compassion and trust. They then demonstrate that in how they treat their employees, how they treat their customers and what role they play as a good corporate citizen (such as supporting a local food bank during this pandemic). So companies need to ask themselves: What do we believe in? What is the CEO willing to lead by example every day? How are we prepared to make every employee accountable to live those values? Most important, companies can’t just have a causal relationship with integrity. They must understand that they cannot do anything that does not uphold their core values — even if it means walking away from business opportunities or not hiring someone whose resume looks good but whose values are questionable. Otherwise, these are simply empty words and will be quickly exposed as such.
  3. Company leadership needs to remember that branding starts on the inside. We work with a lot of physician groups so let me focus on those for a minute as an example. Physicians, their partners and their staff must be fully invested in believing in the brand and delivering on it all of the time. It must be valued, cherished, and protected. It must become such a part of the texture of a physician’s practice that both employees and patients become ambassadors for that practice or medical group. Others who join that practice must understand and live out the brand, too. The same goes for nurses and office staff, all of whom are a critical part of the entire patient experience before, during, and after the direct patient engagement. All of the dollars, efforts and well-intensions efforts that go into building and promoting a brand will be wasted unless branding starts and continues to be nurtured from the inside.
  4. Successful brand strategies find a way to differentiate. There are dozens of hotels on the Las Vegas strip, yet (under normal times) most seem to thrive with high occupancy rates and no shortage of casino crowds. That’s because each has found a way to differentiate itself and carve out a niche. That differentiation speaks to their brand position. A number of years ago we were working with a large group of independent insurance brokers, and I told them that to many of their customers they themselves are as much a commodity as the insurance they are selling. But if they looked more carefully at their portfolio of products, they would find that each one has found a way to differentiate itself and become attractive and relevant for the potential buyer. The brokers needed to do the same. As antiseptic or uncomfortable as it may feel, they needed to view themselves as a product. What makes you different? What makes you special? What is your unique selling proposition? I told them that the answer had to be more than providing “outstanding customer service” because what broker wouldn’t make that claim? Finding that differentiating quality for any organization can be a journey of self-discovery and is central to establishing a brand. As part of a brand strategy, companies (or individuals) should ask themselves three basic questions: what do I do well, what do my customers value and what attributes or characteristics can I “own” over time? They should view those answers as three linked circles. When they find the area where those three circles overlap, they will have found their brand.
  5. In developing a brand, it is important to remember something that sounds obvious but is too often taken for granted: words matter.When we were involved in rebranding the American Occupational Therapy Association, we found that words were central to their branding challenge and the hurdles they were facing. The OT profession had long been saddled with the misconception that occupational therapy was job-related (which it isn’t). In drilling down, it was clear that their problem was exacerbated by their slogan “skills for the job of living.” So in rebranding the organization we not only removed “jobs” from their tagline but decided to focus the messaging on the outcome of OT, rather than the process. As a result, their new tag became “living life to its fullest” as that is what we wanted people to think about whenever they heard occupational therapy. It is what OT would allow people to do … and thus fulfill their wants … and thus provide an inherent value in their lives. More than just a tagline, the AOTA brand now focuses more on the outcome than the process; and that is a mantra increasingly shared by the more than 100,000 therapist in the United States.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

We really need to start with a common understanding of what is a brand, or perhaps more specially, how we define a brand at Kevin/Ross. To us, in what may be contrary to some misguided beliefs, a brand is not a logo, corporate colors or a slogan. Nor is it a clever ad, regardless of how long its shelf life or reach. These are all simply executions of the brand. A brand is strategic at the highest level. It is who you are, what you do well, how you differentiate, what your customers want, who you hire and what visceral promise are you making. It is an expectation, an experience and ultimately how you bond emotionally with people. Think Disney, Apple and Starbucks. They have compelling brands that really have nothing to do with the color of their logo (although, over time, those have become well-known). They know that customer decisions are made on promises that transcend products, and promises are rooted in human emotions. These companies, and others, have found a way to draw upon those human emotions and, as a result, they don’t just have satisfied customers, they have loyal customers. There is a big difference. As Chip Bell, author and consultant in customer loyalty and service innovation once explained “Loyal customers don’t just come back, they don’t simply recommend you, they insist that their friends do business with you too.”

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

People have debated for years whether or not there is a foolproof, universally accepted way to measure the success and value of what we do. Certainly direct response advertising can be measured by sales, new customers or how often the cash register rings. Measuring public relations has always been far more intangible which has always been a thorn in the side of those of us in that profession. The good news is that the effectiveness of a brand building campaigns is easier to measure because we have the power of data on our side. Today we are not only able to measure the overall success of our brand building campaigns, but we can do so on an increasingly granular level. But that is only true if before the campaign launches you take the time — and have company wide agreement — on the campaign’s specific goals and benchmarks so you can measure and analyze data within that context. And the more detailed you get in terms of goals and benchmarks, the better. Is it increased brand recall? Increased traffic to your website? Reach new audiences that might be interested in your product? Once you know the desired outcome, it becomes a lot easier to analyze data relative to reach, chatter, media-earned value, social media engagement, share of voice, brand knowledge and even lead or sales generations. There is a multitude of brand tracking software and survey instruments available to help marketers in this effort.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Social media is great news for brand marketers and the best part is, both big and small brands can benefit. That’s why business and consumer marketers almost unanimously believe that social media is crucial to building a brand. It provides a platform consumers can use to express their loyalty to their favorite brands and products and, by doing so, actually helps promote the product itself. When done correctly, social media tells consumers that their brand is active and focused on thriving communication with consumers. Historically the most successful brands are those which have been able to break through in culture to the point where they generate “cultural relevance.” Traditionally, cultural innovation has flowed from the margins of society — fringe groups, social movements, and even artistic circles that challenged and often disrupted mainstream norms and conventions. Companies and the mass media helped to bring these new ideas to the mass market. But social media has changed everything as it brings together communities that once were geographically isolated, greatly increasing the pace of cultural influence. Having said all of this, also keep in mind that social media has the potential, as we’ve seen in recent years, to influence society in negative ways as well. Anyone can (for the most part) post anything. They can rally a crowd for good or bad. They can spread love or spread hate. They can present facts or falsehoods. In short, social media is a town without a sheriff and, as such, must be assessed and used wisely.

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

I am not a physician, but having spent so much of my career working with hospitals, doctors and health plans I believe I’ve had the most difficult job in healthcare. You think it’s difficult diagnosing an illness? Try explaining on the evening news why so many of our fellow Americans wake up each morning without health insurance. Or how about taking a shellacking for the sea of medical errors that the media reports … or discussing long waits in hospital emergency departments … or trying to translate the alphabet soup of HMOs, PPOs, HSAs, ACOs and the like? Public Relations, marketing and branding are not easy professions we’ve chosen and regardless of what specialty niche you may have carved out for yourself, there are likely times that you feel as if you are living inside a pinball machine. Burnout is natural and there is no pill you can take to prevent its onslaught. Making matters worse is that with so many people working from home these days, there is no real separation between home and work. It’s too easy to get back on your computer in evenings and on weekends. Sometimes that is unavoidable, but if it becomes the norm that’s not good. It’s a cliché to talk about work-life balance but that’s really the key. You need have the discipline to shut off, relax, spend time with family and find things that bring you pleasure. Maybe it’s playing a sport or volunteering or listening to music or gardening. Whatever it is, find it. Do it. Keep your priorities straight and never forget what really matters in life.

You are a person of great influence. 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 don’t know how much influence I have, but I appreciate the sentiment. I am troubled by what a divided country we live in these days. There have always been differences of opinion, which is healthy, but in the past we were rivals, not enemies. The temperature is too hot. The emotions are too high. And the trigger is too quickly pulled, both literally and figuratively. My movement would be one that returns us to civility and the common understanding that we all want nothing more than to live out our lives in peace, health and happiness.

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

There are “life lesson” quotes and there are “business lesson” quotes. As business quotes go, I always remember what a professor in my graduate program told me. He said that in our profession “It is not enough to be right; you must also seem to be right.” That’s a reminder that when it comes to communications and branding, we are dealing with public perception. It’s nice and ideal when perception and reality match — but when they don’t, perception usually wins the day. My two favorite life lesson quotes both come from the Broadway musical “The Music Man.” The first is to “Never let the demands of tomorrow interfere with the pleasures and excitements of today.” The second is a great reminder for anyone of any age, but it becomes particularly poignant the older one gets and looks back on life’s decisions, opportunities and choices. It’s a caution that “If you pile up enough tomorrows, you’ll find you’ve collected nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.” Combined, those two quotes send the same strong message … and it’s a message I’ve tried to drill into our 25-year-old son throughout his life.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

The person I would have most wanted to have met would have been Robert Kennedy who challenged us, who always believed that we can do better, who summoned the best of our character and who reminded us that “happiness comes not from the goods we have but from the good we can do together.” Because that is no longer possible, my answer would be Vin Scully. While Woody Allen and Mel Brooks might keep me in stiches, Vin Scully has not only witnessed so much over his 92 years, but he is the consummate storyteller so spending time with him would be mesmerizing.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

facebook.com/kevinrosspr

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