David Vinjamuri teaches at New York University and is president of Third Way Brand Trainers, a marketing training company whose clients include American Express, Starwood Hotels and other leading consumer brands. David formerly was a brand manager at Johnson & Johnson and Coca Cola. Here we discuss David’s new book, Accidental Branding
What follows is a brief transcript of our conversation. Click below to hear the entire chat.
David, what is an “accidental brand,” and if it’s accidental, how do you create one?
An accidental brand is one that’s started by somebody who doesn’t have a background in marketing and who’s solving their own problem. I call them “accidental brands” because it’s usually some kind of a fortuitous accident that gives you the idea for the problem that you can solve. A good example of that is Gary Erikson, the founder of Cliff Bar. Gary was a very avid cyclist, and he was on a 120-mile ride, which seems crazy to me, but apparently for elite cyclists, that’s not unusual. Now the physiology for elite cyclists requires them to keep eating while they’re biking to replenish their body’s store of energy.
Gary had eaten five Power Bars already on this day, and he went to eat a sixth when he realized they had another 60 miles to go and he wasn’t going make it without more energy. He told me he actually started to wretch. He physically couldn’t swallow it down.
And it’s nothing against the Power Bar, because the metaphor for Power Bar was “fuel.” But Gary thought, “Wouldn’t it be nicer if the metaphor was ‘cookie,’ and this tasted like actual food?” And he realized he was in the unique place to solve this problem because he knew a lot about bicyclists, he knew about manufacturing, and he also had a little entrepreneurial business that had never made any money on the side that was supplying baked goods to San Francisco area bakeries.
And so he created the Cliff Bar.
Well, it’s interesting that you say entrepreneurs like Gary set out to solve a problem that they themselves had – that they essentially were the consumer. It wasn’t that they were targeting some group of people. They were the consumer. This is interesting first because it illustrates the importance of having a brand that actually solves a problem.
And second it seems to me that the entrepreneurs who solve these problems are passionately devoted to that solution.
Yes, I feel like having talked to many of these people that the passion comes the more they investigate the solution and the more they experience the problem. I think it’s important that they actually experience the problem they’re solving and it’s for the two reasons that you said. One is because it gives them the right instincts as a consumer. There’s a lot of controversy over this issue of following your gut instinct. You may have read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, and he’s been criticized because a lot of people rightly see in their life that there’s been a number of times where they’ve made bad decisions based on gut instinct.
What you see in accidental branding is that your instinct works when it’s something you know intimately, that you’re connected to. And that’s why I think being an entrepreneur who’s solving his own problem is important. Now the second thing you mentioned, which I completely agree with, is that it has to solve a problem because entrepreneurs are already up against a steep challenge to begin with. Not being known, not having resources – all of those things.
You say do something that somebody hasn’t done before. That sounds like your Rule No. 2, “Pick a fight,” which really means doing something different from what the other guy is doing.
When I say “pick a fight,” I mean taking a step beyond that and using somebody else as a way to define what you stand for. So if you don’t like the way that Starbucks treats people by their long lines or the flavor of the coffee or whatever, you say, “Well, I’m not Starbucks. This is who I am.” And by picking a fight with them and pointing out your differences you’re defining your own values.
Is this something that would be literal in the branding – in the messaging?
It can be. You know, a good example of an entrepreneur who has done this very literally is Steve Jobs at Apple. He originally made IBM the enemy, and if you remember that iconic 1984 spot, it was actually focused against IBM when it looked like they were “Big Brother.” And years later when Jobs came back to Apple, he picked Microsoft as a target because they represented the things he didn’t agree with.
How is asking consumers what they like different from actually being the consumer and creating what you, yourself, like?
Sometimes when you ask people what they like you don’t get the right answer. Look at Herman Miller, an office furniture maker. In the late ‘90s they came up with a new design for a chair, and it was radically different from anything they had created before. It used see-through fabric. It was breathable. It was more ergonomic. But it looked very, very different from anything anyone had previously done. When they initially came out with this chair, the reviews were horrible.
People thought it was ugly. It didn’t make sense. It looked ungainly, and it really didn’t sell.
But Herman Miller did not give up. Instead they placed the chairs into some of the right environments – places that had more modern and futuristic furniture – design firms, for example. And eventually, a culture of acceptance grew up for this product, the Aeron chair, which has been their number one selling product of all time.
So when you ask people whether they would like something and the answer was no, is it because they didn’t really understand it? What if they not only saw it but actually interacted with it?
One of your rules is to be “unnaturally persistent.”
Yes, one of the things people assume is that it all proceeds at a sort of a normal pace – that you sell $1,000.00 in year one, $2,000.00 in year two, and $3,000.00 in year three, and so on. But that’s rarely the case. Most of these entrepreneurs went for five or ten years at fairly low levels before they suddenly got a burst of awareness – they hit that “tipping point” that Malcolm Gladwell talks about – and then they exploded. But during those early years you get some progress, and then there’s a dip.
And you actually have a setback for six months or a year, and you have to figure out at that point whether you’re doing something that people really need and want. And if so, you have to be very persistent with it. It was interesting talking to J. Peterman, who created the J. Peterman catalog. I remember him very clearly telling me how he had been involved in this wacky venture to popularize beer cheese.
He said, “You know, I got to this point in that venture where I just didn’t think it was going to work.” It was a year into it, and he stepped away from it. And then when he got to the same point with the Peterman catalog, he realized he owed too many people money to get out of it. So he kept persisting at a point where he normally would have given up, and that’s what made the catalog a success – that he didn’t give up.
Another rule is to “build a myth.”
Yes, and when I say “myth,” I mean something that explains the world around you, but also imparts values – something authentic, not false. A great example of this is Roxanne Quimby, the founder of Burt’s Bees. Now, there is a Burt, and Roxanne actually met him in 1984. She was living in Maine in the woods in a tent by a lake with her five-year-old twins, and things were getting a little desperate.
She had seen Burt on the side of the road selling honey from his bees in used gallon pickle jars. And he picked her up when she was hitch-hiking to go to the Post Office and they started up a conversation. She convinced him over the course of the next couple weeks to let her learn how to tend bees.
Eventually, Roxanne suggested they package the honey in cute little containers and sell it at craft fairs. And that was the beginning of Burt’s Bees. But instead of talking about herself or about how natural her products were, Roxanne instinctively realized that by talking about some aspects of Burt, which were all true, she could explain to consumers in a much more powerful way what her brand was about.
And so she created this mythology of “Burt, the Beekeeper” that was about something that exists within all of us, which is the desire to return to nature, to live a simpler life, to uncomplicate our lives. And that was really what her products were, too.
So you’re talking about the creation of a “story,” which is bigger than the attributes or the benefits or features of the brand.
Right, it’s not about features and benefits. What she was really trying to do is convey the brand values by telling a story, and the story was true.
As a radio listener, as a brand expert, and as a guy who literally wrote the book on accidental branding, how does the brand of radio or the brands of radio strike you?
I find radio fascinating. And I think that’s why some of the things I learned from these entrepreneurs in Accidental Branding actually apply very well to your industry. The book talks about being special and unique and differentiated, and ironically the more specialized you are and the more unique you are the more people you’re going to attract.
We’re always afraid of not wanting to offend anybody and not wanting to limit ourselves, and yet look at some of the most powerful personalities on radio and you actually see that they do quite the opposite.
Well, that’s an interesting point, because yes, a lot of the people in radio circles are trying to hedge their bets and be as conservative as possible. But you’re saying that if you take some smart risks there’s more audience there for you than for someone who’s taking none.
And the moment that you don’t take those risks, you’re probably not being genuine either, and the most important aspect of a successful brand, from my perspective, is authenticity. That’s what people are always looking for.
If I’m going to buy a pair of boots, I want to buy the boots that construction workers wear that are indestructible. That was Timberland twenty years ago. I want expert brands, so when you start to say, “well, I also need to please these people, and I also shouldn’t be too controversial about this,” you’re not really being yourself, and that’s not going to help you.
So what would be your recommendation then for a radio station or the radio industry looking to bring that authenticity to the station? It’s an odd question because I’m really asking you how can I be real.
No, it’s a fair question because you can’t do it in a vacuum. You actually have to look at the people that you’re trying to reach. What do they have already? What needs are already being met? And is there something that’s true about me that I can turn into a set of offerings for a radio station that would fill this unmet need?
Is there a way you can step into a vacuum somewhere or deal with something that nobody else is doing? I think that’s what I would look for. And be very focused about it; that’s the key thing.
In radio we focus on formats, which are one way of defining the differences between the brands , but ultimately when you’re talking about authenticity you’re talking about human characteristics which may not be as narrow as any one “format,” yes?
Yes, and I would argue that your same consumers are engaging in various formats anyway. They may be listening to talk radio. They may be listening to play-by-play commentary. They may be listening to music – all of those things. What you really want to do is to stand for something that they believe in and deliver something that’s unique to them.
When people are really focused around that, it’s very appealing, and that’s also when you get publicity and attention for what you’re doing.
You mean because it stands out to them, it’s interesting to them, it’s original to them, and it feels authentic to them.