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Dan Cook: “Manage the elements that matter most to your brand”

Find out what your brand truly is. Sounds simple, right? But far too many companies confuse advertising with brand, sales with brand, profits with brand. Your brand is that chorus of all the voices talking about you in the marketplace. There are so many case studies of major companies that for years stumbled along not […]

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Find out what your brand truly is. Sounds simple, right? But far too many companies confuse advertising with brand, sales with brand, profits with brand. Your brand is that chorus of all the voices talking about you in the marketplace. There are so many case studies of major companies that for years stumbled along not understanding how the public perceived their products. Then, they did the exhaustive research required to find that out. The winners course corrected. The losers can be found in bankruptcy court.


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

Dan Cook is a longtime journalist, with stops along his circuitous route at BusinessWeek, Knight Ridder, Newhouse Publications, American Lawyer Media, Reuters, Time, and various other journalistic weigh stations. For the past six years he has been a regular contributor to BenefitsPro.com, an online news service dedicated to the healthcare and insurance industries. He has written more than 2,000 articles for BenefitsPro and has an insanely detailed understanding of health insurance and healthcare reform. A Cleveland native and diehard Indians fan, he lives in Portland, OR.


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

My serendipitous introduction to the world of Wikipedia editing came when I was doing marcom work for a Portland tech startup, Pixetell. The founder desperately wanted to be included in Wikipedia and charged me with making it happen. I had no idea how to proceed. But I did have a friend, Pete Forsyth, who was among Wikipedia’s earliest volunteer editors. He had just started training people to edit Wikipedfia, and he took me on as a paying client. Together, we got the article up there. Even though the company is long gone, Pixetell remains on Wikipedia! Subsequently, Pete and I started working together as Wikipedia consultants.

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?

I made so many mistakes as I learned the ropes of Wikipedia editing! It is a very precise discipline, practiced by very precise people. My first big mistake that got outside the office was telling a couple of people I shared space with that I’d “get them on Wikipedia.” (Ha-ha! That’s not how it works, folks.) These were two pretty good friends of mine, and when I went to post the articles, they both got shot down by the volunteer community post haste.

This was years ago. But what I learned from that was I better memorize the guidelines for adding new articles to Wikipedia and get a solid understanding of Wikipedia’s definition of notability — the very thing that qualifies a subject for an article. Boiled down, the lesson was: Do you homework before you promise something you can’t deliver.

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

What makes us stand out is our knowledge of the rules of Wikipedia editing, and the culture of this open source space. We know how to work with volunteers so they will review our edit requests objectively but with an eye to helping us improve articles. The public relations person of a major metropoiitan public school system asked for help in editing the new superintendent’s article in Wikipedia. We spent time seeking out thoughtful editors who specialized in improving public school articles and found a match for our client. She was able to effectively update and improve the superintendent’s article with the help of the volunteer, who still maintains that article and keeps it up to date.

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

We recently launched a free webinar series designed to educate public relations, branding, and marketing professionals in how to offer Wikipedia article editing services to their clients. In the current uncertain economy, article editing is a great way to add a new revenue stream for these firms while positioning their clients better in the marketplace. We had so much fun planning and scripting the webinar and promoting it mainly through LinkedIn video ads! It helps us because p.r. firms are our ideal clients, and it helps the firms because they add revenue and can basically white label our services as their own.

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?

Advertising content is completely within your control. Branding elements can range all over the map, and it’s up to you the brand manager to manage them so the messages are consistent.

Wikipedia is a great example of branding vs. advertising. Wikipedia rules prohibit any hint of advertising speak in an article, and any p.r. or marketing person who tries to add blatant marketing language to an article may well be banned from editing forever.

BUT, a paid editor who understands Wikipedia’s rules of engagement can manage an article for a client. The article will never be under your control. But you can influence what is in there by working effectively with the volunteer community. And because people trust what they read on Wikipedia, a well-done article that is honest, accurate, well sourced, and up to date has more influence that most advertising vehicles.

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?

Your brand is a collaboration between you, the brand manager, and everyone else who touches the company. That includes customers, employees and ex-employees, leadership, the media, your business partners. And anyone who visits or edits your Wikipedia article — even competitors.

Your brand is the chatter these parties create about you in the marketplace. You can create the messaging you prefer, but you can only manage, not control, your brand once it leaves your advertising/marketing platforms.

Brands must be cultivated, nurtured, monitored, discussed. Advertising is easy compared to managing social media chatter, Wikipedia content, Yelp! Reviews, and what competitors and critics say about you. But advertising is seen as the company’s viewpoint only. No one is fooled that it is the whole story. That’s why non-advertising elements, like Wikipedia, are so vital to success in the marketplace. These other voices outside of the advertising world, form a chorus that adds up to credibility in the minds of your potential customers, clients, employees, potential investors, and partners.

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. Find out what your brand truly is. Sounds simple, right? But far too many companies confuse advertising with brand, sales with brand, profits with brand. Your brand is that chorus of all the voices talking about you in the marketplace. There are so many case studies of major companies that for years stumbled along not understanding how the public perceived their products. Then, they did the exhaustive research required to find that out. The winners course corrected. The losers can be found in bankruptcy court.
  2. I’ll give you an example of discovering your brand. My company was promoting Wikipedia consulting with LinkedIn video ads. But we were not yet getting our ideal clients. The ads were getting plenty of views and we were getting inquiries. Just not the right ones. So, we started a 6-month campaign of dueling video ads. We would use two ads with essentilly the same message, one targeing one specific LinkedIn audience, the second another. We tested positively phrased (you can enhance your client’s brand) and negatively phrased (have you tried and failed at Wikipedia editing?) messages against one another. We kept the same spokesperson, only varied the length a bit, and tested other variables. Finally, we found the sweet spot — public relations agencies with multiple clients who already had Wikipedia pages, rather than fairly unknown folks who wanted an article of their own. But we had to suspend our original beliefs about the type of clients our messaging would attract. Now, we are getting those ideal client inquiries.
  3. Understand the difference between managing and controlling your brand. If you are a small business, you should probably spend 80% of your time managing your brand, and the other 20% on advertising and messaging that you create. Too many small-to-mid-sized businesses agonize over the content on their website, their blog posts, their newsletters, and don’t pay enough attention to their perception in the chatter world. Craft your key messages, choose your key words, create your ads (wherever you are placing them), get them out there and leave them alone. Turn your attention to where your brand is being discussed, join the discussion, and start managing, listening, and course correcting. Once you have a consistent strategy for identifying your brand and being part of it, you can go back to your ads and revise them accordingly.
  4. Wikipedia is perhaps the best example of a lost opportunity for those who have an article. (Don’t try to write a new one without an expert’s help! That’s a rabbit hole with a dead end if you aren’t an expert.) People think they can’t control what’s in an article about themselves or their company. If you know the rules of Wikipedia editing, you know that you can influence what’s there. The telecommunications giant Vonage is among the companies we have worked with to manage their Wikipedia article. Over a period of about a year, a staff person was trained by us and went on to update all the information on the page, have old stuff removed, and correct negative information about Vonage that simply was not substantiated. But she knew the rules of engagement and, by following them, improved the company’s brand messaging, and added a powerful new skill to her already impressive skill set.
  5. Never argue with the chatter world about your brand. Ignore, or listen and learn. When managing your brand, it never pays to get into a fight with a critic. You cannot control what they are saying about you. But you can amplify the negativity by arguing with them.

Critics fall into 3 categories:

  • ‘The Haters’ — Unhappy customers, ex-employees, or clients: They don’t like you and/or your products and will NEVER change their minds about you. They want to hurt you and engaging with them accomplishes that. It makes you look small and petty and, generally, wrong.
  • ‘The Trolls’ –attention seekers: These are critics who just like attention or want to stir up trouble. They don’t care about you or your product. They just want to get a reaction. If you’ve raised children, you are familiar with this tactic. How well did it work out to fight with your kids?
  • ‘The Lovable Critics’ who want to help you: These are people who truly have your best interest at heart, and are expressing it by saying, “Hey, you are getting this thing over here wrong. Please fix it!” These are the folks you listen to, learn from, and send coupons, free products, and holiday boxes of sweets to. Then, immediately put them on your priority email list.

Lesson: When someone attacks you — justifiably or not — listen, and either respond positively, or let it go. If you can’t learn from your critics, don’t fight with them.

Restaurateurs who battle with authors of poor reviews are a prime example of poor brand management. One Mexican themed restaurant in town became so fixated on negative reviews on Yelp! that they overlooked two key points: 1) Many of the critics had received either poor service or food and were noting an inconsistently in the delivery of the product; 2) their loyal customer base was so strong that they were able to open two new locations that were thriving during COVID. The owner complained to me bitterly about the negative reviews, thus amplifying them. She also complained that satisfied customers were not writing positive reviews. Who care?? Pay attention to what the critics are saying, and fix that. And don’t hassle your loyal customers to stop what they’re doing — enjoying your food — and write something on Yelp!

  1. Manage the elements that matter most to your brand. As noted above, I would focus most of my resources on managing those brand elements that cannot be directly controlled. But know where the discussion about your brand is worth managing, and where you are wasting too many resources on too few influencers. When small-to-mid-sized companies “discover” branding, they tend to launch into a frenzied assault across all platforms. OMG — what are we saying on Twitter? Are we on Instagram yet? Has that new landing page on the website been finished? When do we launch our first webinar? Generally, these companies have not tested ANY of those platforms except randomly. Platform response varies greatly depending upon the product or service you offer. For instance, if you are offering content management services, there’s only so much Instagram can do to help boost sales. You need to be where eyeballs searching for content creators lurk — and nowhere else. Unless you have unlimited marketing resources, you need to thoughtfully choose the platforms you will monitor and engage in. Would you continue to spend advertising dollars on a medium that was producing no conversions? No. Apply the same test to platforms where you manage the discussion rather than control the content. If your target audiences are not there, don’t waste resources on it.
  2. Early on in our Wikipedia consulting, we test marketed several industries, included the health care and credit union industries. We were getting nowhere, even with companies whose Wikipedia articles were in terrible shape. Finally, a credit union executive flipped on the light switch for us. “Credit unions are essentially locally based with local customers. We would rather spend our marketig dollars on billboards, radio, TV, and online ads, and local sponsorships, than Wikipedia.” The same was true of most healthcare systems: They were essentially local, often without a lot of competition, and a well-done Wikipedia article was not going to drive a lot of business their way.
  3. Make sure your advertising messaging accurately reflects your brand reputation in the marketplace. You can totally control your advertising content, so make sure you revise it based on what you learn about your brand from the chatter world. For example, if your advertising campaign is based on being the low-cost solution when people in the chatter world are praising your quality, it’s time to switch that message — and raise prices. If Millennials online are embracing you but your ads target Baby Boomers, it’s time to revise the message. Never stick with an advertising campaign that is out of synch with what people are actually saying about you. Even ongoing strong sales can be misleading. Especially if your direct competitor makes the shift first.
  4. The U.S. auto makers were woefully bad at doing that during the 1980s when the Japanese and German car builders ate their lunch. U.S. auto makers were still promoting big, sleek cars with lots of comfort features. The Japanese and Germans talked about economy, quality, durability, performance. The U.S. makers were still selling planned obsolescence. The foreign car makers knew from research that consumers wanted vehicles that lasted andspent little time in the shop.

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?

Oregon Humane Society (OHS) is my all-time favorite. Under the long-time direction of Sharon Harmon, her assembled marketing team has consistently striven to anticipate what folks wanted and expected of the organization. I served on the board of trustees for four years and got an inside look at how the entire team stays focused on its goal: 100% of all animals adopted out. It seemed like an impossible goal, but each year they get closer. Dogs are already at 100%, cats around 80%.

What impresses me is the way they don’t just come up with campaign slogans, they develop campaigns with themes that evolve one to the next. They never rest on their past triumphs, always pushing for higher goals. When they were unhappy because pit bulls had to be put down, they launched a campaign to build an animal retraining center. Now, pit bulls are adopted out regularly.

OHS combines active listening with actionable strategies to build community and consensus as they redefine what it means to be an animal shelter. Their brand is “We love animals and we want them all to have good homes.” And that guides everything they do.

Duplicating such an awesome organization requires:

  • Strong, innovative leadership
  • Experienced and driven marketing team
  • Clearly defined mission and goals
  • Deep ties to the community and a commitment to meeting community expectations.

It can be done. You just don’t see that kind of commitment to excellence very often (or maybe not often enough).

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?

Lots of folks have attempted to quantify branding. You have social media metrics, website metrics, funds raised, or volunteers recruited. The list of metrics that we are told will justify our brand spending is a long and changing one.

But a branding campaign, vs. an advertising campaign cannot be evaluated in 3,6,9 or 12-month segments. If you chart where key numbers are at the start of a new branding initiative, you should be able to see a shift taking place over time in sales, profits, new client acquisitions, online conversions, employee retention, employee satisfaction survey results, visits to the pages you want people to visit on your website, and so on. But managing a brand’s reputation so that it moves in a certain direction takes time, patience, persistence, and a willingness to change direction based on the chorus in the chatter world about you.

An ad campaign may help sell more cars or attract more clients. But when you are creating a reputation for your company, you are selling your organization. If the brand is strong, you should be able to release completely new product lines or offer new services, and the strength of your brand will ensure that they succeed. The purchaser is buying your good name, not responding to an ad.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

That depends on the line of business. Fot Wikipedia consuiting, we are all LinkedIn, all the time. That’s where our ideal clients (p.r. agencies) live. And by joining targeted LinkedIn groups, we can reach a much broader audience than the other platforms. We do not want Facebook or Twitter traffic; too random and individual. For our design/communications services, we use all available platforms. Social media’s role in our promotion is growing as we focus our services and better define our ideal clients. While LinkedIn is still a good platform, many nonprofits are active on Twitter, Facebook and, more increasingly Instagram. So, we need to be active there.

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

Two key pieces:

Identify your ideal client, then go after only that client. And do the work that feeds you, that challenges you, that brings you into daily contact with the kind of people you love. You will never be burned out if you follow those rules. (Note: Easy to say, harder to follow!)

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. 🙂

The movement would require our healthcare system to guarantee equal access to preventative medical care services for everyone in the country, whether they can afford it or not, or are here legally or not. Right now, Obamacare says basic services must be offered at no cost to Americans. But, due to lack of true access to healthcare, millions go without the care that would ensure a much healthier life in the future. This would not only benefit those individuals that cannot access health services, but it would create a stronger, healthier, more vibrant U.S. Such a movement would threaten many in the healthcare industry, from insurers to Big Pharma to specialists to developers of new medical products. They all benefit from an unhealthy population. But it is morally and ethically wrong for that to be the case.

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

Easy one: Soar with your strengths. From the book of the same title by Don Clifton and Paula Nelson. I learned this one at an American City Business Journal editors retreat. Changed my management style and my life. At the time, I was spending more time trying to fix struggling employees than encouraging my stars to be all-stars. Once I realized the flaw in that behavior, our newsroom production truly did soar. And I stopped spending so much time working on my personal flaws and more time building out my personal strengths.

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. 🙂

So many. But if I had to choose one, I would choose one couple. I would love to cook up a big brunch for the Obamas and just listen to their life stories.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You’ll find me mostly on LinkedIn but also Notfedupdan on Instagram and #notfedup on Twitter. Dan Cook on Facebook.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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