Deliver on your brand promise. Always. Without fail. If you’re promising that your widgets last 50% longer than everybody else’s, make damn sure that they do. It’s the consistent delivery on the brand promise that will build trust and develop brand loyalty.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin J. Walker. Shortly after graduation from high school, before attending college, Kevin Walker rebranded a small gift shop in Washington DC and doubled its revenues in one year. Since that time, he has been providing successful brand strategy solutions to some of the most demanding clients in the world. Kevin co-founded Boardwalk in 1990. At its inception, Boardwalk was solely a graphic design firm. It’s first project was the successful rebrand of Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. In addition to its work in corporate identity, Boardwalk quickly became a preferred vendor to the consumer products divisions of many of the major entertainment giants in the Los Angeles area. Boardwalk is now a one-person branding consultancy that provides brand diagnoses, brand strategies and branding tactics to small and middle-market organizations. When needed, Boardwalk recruits and leads teams of trusted associates to provide specialized talents. Among others, Kevin has advised STAPLES Center, Trillium Digital Systems, Metropolitan Water District, News Corp, NBC Universal Consumer Products, Fox Licensing and Merchandising, Walt Disney Consumer Products, the Disney Stores, Warner Bros. Consumer Products, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, the City of Santa Monica and pro skateboarder Tony Hawk. An international thought leader and popular commentator on the true purpose and economic advantages of branding, Kevin has been quoted by publications like The Los Angeles Times and is a guest blogger for the Association of National Advertisers. He conducts workshops on branding essentials for leaders and is a frequent speaker to business groups. He is an invited guest lecturer at UCLA Extension and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Kevin is the author of the ebook, “A Brand is a Promise Kept”, along with several white papers on branding. Kevin also publishes a weekly newsletter, “Brandtalk”. All are available, for free, at https://www.boardwalkhq.com/publications.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After high school, I went to live in Uganda for a while. When I got back, I had to wait a few months before I could start college. So I got a job in a small gift shop. This was Washington D.C. The shop was struggling even though it had tremendous foot traffic going by every day. It was the early ’70s, the height of counter culture. The shop seemed too dowdy for the neighborhood. To the hip, young people passing by, it just didn’t look like the kind of place they’d want to patronize. I persuaded my boss to change the name of the shop to something a little more modern. I think he let me do it out of desperation. I hand painted a new sign and brightened up the storefront. Then it was time for me to go off to college. After my freshman year, I was back in D.C. and decided to stop by the old place. But the gift shop was gone. It had moved across the street and up a block, to a corner location, twice as big. Their revenue had doubled in one year. I didn’t know what I had done was called “branding” but I knew I had done something cool and interesting. After finishing college, I bumped around in different jobs for a while but I always kept coming back to doing this kind of work. Finally co-founded Boardwalk and got into it full time.
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 can’t think of any strategic mistakes. Or maybe I’ve just blocked them out. The mistakes I do remember were more in production. For instance, when I hand painted that sign, I misspelled “stationery”. I spelled it “stationary”, not knowing that each meaning of the word had a different spelling. That’s probably the funniest mistake I made because it was so dumb and easily fixed. The rest of my mistakes never seemed very funny. They all cost somebody something. I owe a debt of gratitude to my early clients. I basically went to school on them. But I think I did more good than harm.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re really good at teaching our clients how to see their brands through the eyes of their customers or clients. That truly opens their eyes and gives them a clarity of purpose they’ve never had before. And people like working with us. Years ago, the Los Angeles Kings hockey team was looking to redesign their uniforms. We competed for that assignment and made the list of finalists. In the end, we didn’t get the job because we had never branded a sports team before. But about two months later, they called us back and asked us to create the brand for STAPLES Center. This time, no competition.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re working with a startup restaurant chain. And we’re doing something that is different for us; we’re developing a two-year marketing program for Lifescan Diabetes Institute. This will enable more healthcare professionals to become fully educated on the very latest in diabetes care. We’re also in talks with some exciting new prospective clients: a law firm, a food distributor, a new internet real estate portal, and a Malaysian nanotechnology company. Hopefully, one or more of those will come through.
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?
Sure. Every marketing campaign has its advertising message and its branding message. A good illustration of that is the famous Miller Lite campaign from McCann-Erickson in the ’70s and ’80s. The ads depicted two sides of people arguing about the beer. One side would shout, “Tastes great!” The other side would counter, “Less filling!” That’s the advertising message, front and center. That’s the sell. Those are the two features that Miller Lite wanted to stick in your mind. And they were about as direct about hammering those two points home as they could be.
In contrast, the branding message is implied through semiotics. Every ad included sports figures, popular comedians and beautiful women. The “arguments” usually took place in a sports bar, a sports venue or a home den with sports memorabilia all around. The bickering was all played for broad comedy, all in good fun. The branding message is: Drink Miller Lite and you can feel connected to us really accomplished, athletic and fun guys who happen to attract beautiful women. It’s an unspoken promise that you’ll be like one of the cool kids. You’ll be in a really fun, sports-centric tribe. The context of the ads is what sparks an emotional connection between the viewer and the brand. Advertising messages change all the time. Branding messages are constant. That’s why it’s so important to understand your brand completely and develop a strategy to drive its growth.
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?
Wow. I could talk forever on this one. A strong brand actually gives a business eight distinct benefits. And they all add value. I’ll just list them so we don’t spend all day on it. First, a strong brand will boost your immediate sales. It will also help grow your market — in two different ways, I might add. A strong brand will cut your costs in marketing and in HR. It will build a dedicated, empowered workforce. A brand strategy will find you passionate, devoted customers who resist the temptations of competitors. It will give you pricing power — both premium pricing and price resiliency. Your brand will be a strategic “lens” through which you can judge all future important decisions, thus future-proofing your business. Finally, a well-developed brand will add value to your company — maybe a lot of value. Did I get all eight? I think so.
Can you share 5 strategies that a small company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
That’s a tough one because brand strategies are so unique to the assets and circumstances of each individual company. But I can give you five steps that any business, of any size, needs to take in order to build a strong brand.
First, know your market. Not just your customers but every constituency whose perception of your brand is important to its future. That includes, employees, prospective employees, suppliers, vendors, financiers, the press — everybody. You want one brand promise that will excite and engage them all.
Second, determine what your brand promise ought to be. This is actually the hard part but ask your market. If you ask the right questions, they’ll tell you. You also have to do a brutally objective analysis of your current business and survey your competitive environment. How does your market want to relate to you? What is the one thing you can offer that no one else can? Who are the customers you can serve better than anyone else? How will you position your brand for competitive advantage?
Third, once you’re clear on your brand promise, communicate it as frequently as your budget will allow. This is all your marketing, all your storytelling. Make your brand promise consistently across all media. Again, your advertising message can change. Your branding should be consistent.
Fourth, deliver on your brand promise. Always. Without fail. If you’re promising that your widgets last 50% longer than everybody else’s, make damn sure that they do. It’s the consistent delivery on the brand promise that will build trust and develop brand loyalty.
Fifth, remember your brand is a relationship you share with your market. Emphasis on “shared”. That relationship — your brand — is the most important asset any business has and it’s the only one that appreciates in value over time. It’s like a marriage. Don’t ever take it for granted and don’t for a minute think that you own it.
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?
I’ve always admired FedEx. Most businesses describe themselves by what they sell. We’re in the widget business. We’re in the doohickey industry. FedEx thought of themselves as being in the package delivery business. But research revealed that their customers didn’t think of them that way. Their customers had a lot of options to get their packages delivered. They used FedEx for the peace of mind. Anybody who’s ever rushed a package to the FedEx office knows the feeling of relief when you hand it over to the clerk just before deadline. It’s almost as if, just by dropping it off, the package is already on the other side of the country. Once FedEx realized they’re actually in the peace-of-mind business, it changed everything for them. It allowed them to come up with brilliant campaigns like, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” FedEx saw themselves through their customers’ eyes and became one of the strongest, most valuable brands around. Now when B2B companies tell me branding isn’t for them, I always point to FedEx.
To replicate their success, try to figure out the deeper purpose your market has for you. There’s an old saying: People don’t buy drills because they need drills. People buy drills because they need holes. FedEx sells package delivery (that’s the drill) but their customers are buying peace of mind (that’s the hole). Extend this metaphor to your own business. You know what you’re selling … but what is your customer really buying? How does this differentiate from your competition? Figure that out and you’re on your way to a strong brand.
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?
It’s a little different. In branding, sales is just one way to measure success. I mentioned eight benefits earlier. You could look for improvements in any of them and know your branding is working. There are also specialized brand evaluation firms like Nevium in San Diego. You could get one of them to place a value on your brand. Then, launch your brand-building efforts. Then, a few years later, have them evaluate it again. If you’ve branded correctly, there will be measurable improvement across several metrics.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
Social media, like any other media, is part of your storytelling efforts. It’s one way to make your brand promise. Every business should consider how its brand is perceived on social media and how that integrates with all the other storytelling you’re doing.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
I’d say find ways to get work out of your mind. Get out of town for a few days. Change your view. Or read a book that will take you to another time or place. Meditate. Find a sport or a hobby that requires intense concentration. I used to fence. Nothing clears the mind like having somebody trying to run you through. So yeah. Find a way to erase the slate. Then come back to the project with fresh eyes, fresh ideas.
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’m not that influential but thanks for saying so. There are so many movements I wish I could inspire. So I’ll just mention the one that’s clearly the most urgent. That’s finding an end to the climate emergency and learning to live in harmony with our beautiful home planet that gives us free air and water. Air and water will be very expensive when we all have to move to Mars.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My parents always repeated the adage, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” And I guess I took that to heart. But then, I had a great client who one-day told me, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Hearing that actually shocked me. What he meant was you can’t ever wait for an idea to be perfect because perfection never comes. Do you have a good idea? Get it up and running. Perfection can come later. That’s always stuck with me.
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. 🙂
I’m a big fan of Danny Meyer, Union Square Hospitality Group. It would be fun to break bread with him. And I know the meal would be excellent.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Best bet is on LinkedIn. Search Kevin J. Walker. I’m also on Twitter, @boardwalkla.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
You’re most welcome. Thanks for having such great questions