At our house, we watch some delightfully dumb TV shows.
Among them is Beat Bobby Flay. This is another silly competition show on The Food Network that doesn't make a lot of sense. No doubt, it's profitable. Just 25 seasons and counting. It's maybe not as profitable as Worst Cooks In America. We're talking 20 seasons of a show that could be called Shameless Kitchen Idiots Bang Spatulas On Their Heads And Cry. But we don't watch that. For some inexplicable reason, we enjoy watching Bobby Flay get thrashed.
What's that? You don't know this icon of "unscripted" food-TV goodness?
Here's how it works: for 20 minutes, two frenzied challenger chefs conduct a kitchen haboob against each other using an ingredient chosen by Bobby. The winner of that first round gets to face off against Bobby in round two. In that round, Bobby and the challenger have 45 minutes to cook a challenger-specified "signature dish." Three professional judges (who are clearly not smart enough to figure out which dish came from one of the most famous chefs in America) choose the winner in a blind taste test. All throughout, there's trash talking against Bobby. Benign hilarity ensues.
Bobby's got a 62.5% winning record. There's almost 100% universal desire to see Bobby get spanked on national basic cable television. Whee!
Anyway, here's where the marketing fun comes in...
In a recent new-to-us rerun of this guilty pleasure, Bobby had to face-off against a chef who challenged him to make cacio e pepe.
Whassat? You no know how to say? Pronounce it like "catch-eeo ay pay-pay" and you're close enough. It's a traditional Roman dish of spaghetti, pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper. It was once a staple food of Italian shepherds because it's practical and easy. The ingredients keep well for a long time. Besides being stupidly simple to make, it offers the bonus of being really tasty. You can use it to impress a first date with your kitchen prowess. (Just keep your time amongst the sheep out of the story.)
It was clear: this challenger was ready to crush Bobby with her signature dish.
She was cocky in announcing the cacio e pepe challenge. During the bout, she was over in her station making fresh pasta. She was making a special parmigiano-Reggiano stock for cooking the pasta. She was making special parmesan cheese toast crisps to go with.
What was Bobby doing over in his station with his 45 minutes? Making a traditional cacio e pepe with dried spaghetti. Three basic ingredients. It doesn't take 45 minutes to make. So he did something interesting: he made the dish twice. The first time was a test run to make sure his dish was sound and competitive. The second time was his dish for the judges.
Fresh, fresh, fresh means win, win, win! Right?
The clever version of the dish had all kinds of problems for the judges-not the least of which was: it doesn't taste traditional.
And the fancy stock made for cooking the fresh pasta? It made the fresh pasta gloppy.
The parmesan toast crisps, well...did the Italian shepherds make those, too?
But Bobby's simple, pedestrian edition of a favorite staple food was admired by the judges.
Bottom line: the chef who didn't get clever and ran a test run of his dish crushed it.
So, are your advertising dishes getting too clever?
Or are they sticking to a proven model? Are you doing test runs against the proven dishes? Maybe most important, are they accused of being too clever? Are you just not listening to that feedback and testing it anyway? I've done that. Sometimes, the ad you'd thought would work simply doesn't. And sometimes, the ostensibly too-clever ad outperforms the proven dishes by 4:1.
Bottom line: there are good ideas, and ideas that aren't as good. And occasionally, there are going to be ideas that crush it by a factor of four to one. Sometimes, you don't know you've made a gloppy, over-fancy cacio e pepe. And once in a while, you'll know you've made a classic. But only the judges will confirm it when they vote with their dollars. Let them judge.
Now, about that free book and a few other things...
The Fabulous Honey Parker and I have a new book called, Lightning Branding: How To Generate Revenue Faster With An Electrified New Brand. It's yours free by clicking here.
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Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
If you've been hanging around here for any length of time, you're sick of hearing us say it.
Your brand is the one way your Core Customer should feel about your business.
One way, because focus is essential.
Feel, because all decisions--including buying decisions--are made emotionally and justified later.
Core Customer because, when you understand the one person to whom you're speaking, you understand how to be resonant and relevant.
With that in mind, allow us to look at that simple, ground-corn product, the humble tortilla chip.
Specifically, let's look at a small, regional brand here in the west that goes by the name, Juanita's.
JUANITA'S IS A TORTILLA CHIP OF DISTINCTION
This is a chip that one might refer to as "restaurant-style."
It's a rustic product made of stone-ground yellow corn, a trace of lime, vegetable oil, salt and water.
Juanita's is a classic American success story.
An immigrant Mexican family moves to Hood River, Oregon.
In the 1970s, they rent a room and start making mom's authentic, Mexican-style corn tortillas to sell in local markets.
One by one, the family members leave their other jobs and work in the tortilla factory.
Today, they're huge in a regional kind of way.
If you want to read the story, it's on their website.
On the bag, there is a topline version of the story:
"To make a great tasting tortilla chip,
you first need to know how to make
a great tortilla. For over 50 years our
mother has prepared fine, authentic
Mexican meals insisting on only the
finest ingredients. And for over 26
years our family has brought to the
public the same dedication to quality
with the brand named after
her .... Juanita's."
WHEN THE FABULOUS HONEY PARKER AND I THROW A PARTY, THIS IS OUR GO-TO CHIP
We serve it with a homemade salsa cruda, which is basically a mix of chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, cilantro, salt and lime juice all stirred up in a bowl.
Our guests scarf it down. And someone always asks, "What kind of chips are these? They're great."
We show them the simple bag with its red and green logo that looks like the signage off an old Los Angeles taco joint. They nod and crunch.
Last week, when I went to buy Juanita's for our traditional July 4th barbecue at the Mountaintop Marketing Fortress...
The supermarket was out.
On the shelf, there was an enormous void where our beloved Juanita's usually live.
Holiday locusts had descended ahead of me.
I began perusing the alternatives. There were a couple of brands that seemed equally rustic and unsophisticated in their branding.
But I looked at one that seemed especially relevant.
LA COCINA DE JOSEFINA
I already knew the story of Juanita's Horatio Algero roots.
I looked at the bag of chips from La Cocina De Josefina, and it seemed equally unsophisticated.
A simple drawing of a Mexican woman rolling out a tortilla by hand.
Turning the bag over, it was not dissimilar to Juanita's:
These tortilla chips are made
with the simple ingredients of
corn, oil, salt... and love, ---
because we believe that every
bag of La Cocina de Josefina chips
is an invitation. To share. To
connect. To come together with
people who are important to you.
Made right here in the Pacific
Northwest, we care greatly about
the product we create for you,
and make sure to only use quality
ingredients. The result is a flavorful
tortilla chip that we think you'll
find simply delicious. So grab
some friends, open a bag
With the dearth of Juanita's, two bags of Josefina's went into the cart.
The salsa was a hit. People scarfed down 97% of it using a bag and a half of chips.
The next evening, I was sitting with the leftover chips, considering how much they tasted like a Fritos corn chip. Could Josefina have displaced Juanita in my chip repertoire?
Looking at the bag, it seemed odd that there was no website listed in the labeling.
Wondering about Josefina's heritage, I googled her chips.
Dear God, what have I done!
This rustic tortilla chip, made with the simple ingredients of corn, oil, salt, and love...
Is a poseur!
Or, as they would say in Spanish, "Presumido!"
The chips from La Cocina De Josefina are made not with love at all, but with filthy corporate lucre!
JOSEFINA'S CHIPS AND HER SIMPLE DRAWING OF HER ROLLING OUT A TORTILLA...
...are a product of Frito-Lay, Inc.!
Be still my heart!
Nowhere on the packaging is there any indication of this relationship.
The closest they come to any admission is in the address:
Made in Vancouver, Washington
for La Cocina de Josefina by
Cocina Autentica, Inc.
4808 NW Fruit Valley Rd.
Vancouver, WA 98660
Google that address, and you get a map of Frito Lay's Vancouver production plant.
Why this lie by omission?
FOR EXACTLY THE REASON INDICATED AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS SCREED
The Frito-Lay marketing department knows that a brand is the one way the Core Customer should feel about the business.
One way, because focus is essential. They have focused on creating what seems to be a family-owned brand of chips.
Feel, because all decisions--including buying decisions--are made emotionally and justified later. And any simple chip "made with love" is a viable substitute for the absent Juanita.
And Core Customer because they want to have a voice that is resonant and relevant. They understand they are speaking to someone who appreciates the rustic family nature of Juanita's brand. Understanding how this person feels about Juanita's helps them matter in this person's quest for chips over, say, Tostitos.
But why have they done this?
Why has this big dog perpetrated this big lie by omission?
THIS IS A CORPORATE STRATEGY
Publicly, they say that they don't mention Frito-Lay because it is a regional product only. Frito-Lay is a national brand.
But dig a little deeper, and you find that Frito-Lay has a new strategy of going after strong regional brands.
And wisely, they look at someone like me, who's a fan of my regional brand. They know that in no way would I, in looking for a substitute for my Juanita's, buy a product from a subsidiary of a $75 billion company.
But the small-brand BS stamped on the back of their bag, along with the homespun look of the package, is exactly what they know I will respond to.
I have been played!
And this proves exactly why Slow Burn Marketing insists that as a small business in the 21st century, being competitive in one's marketplace requires understanding what it means to have an evocative brand.
THIS BIG DOG HAS DONE NOTHING ILLEGAL
But they have concocted an implicit lie of a brand in an effort to squeeze out a little guy.
Is it fair?
Do I have anything against Frito-Lay?
Am I glad to have been duped like this?
Because not only does it make me a smarter consumer.
IT ALSO GIVES ME GRIST FOR THE SCREED MILL
Like so much yellow corn being stoneground for tortilla chip slurry, we have a salty object lesson for the small-business marketer.
If you brand well, and you build your business, you can become a threat to the big dogs.
If you were around a few weeks ago when we talked about Dollar Shave Club and their acquisition by Unilever last year for a billion dollars cash, that's another example of threat management.
Wisdom on the street is that Unilever paid far more than the brand was worth just to prevent someone else from buying it.
Most of us will never be big enough to inspire fear and big-money attacks or acquisitions.
Some will. There are a few followers of the screed who will make it happen.
But by understanding why branding works and knowing how to throw an emotional dart at the heart of your customer, no matter how small you are, you can win big in your marketplace.
Mere component parts like corn, oil and salt are beaten into the ground by the idea of love.
Even if it's all a lie.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
LOUSY BRANDING, BIG MONEY
Here's the topline version of Dan and Penny's story: they turned a single food truck into minor franchise empire.
How does a fan of small-business branding not immediately want to know more?
Plus, you already know how your relentless scribe's brain works.
Small-business brand made good!
Husband & wife couplepreneur team make it big!
A screed AND a story for CoupleCo!
NOT SO FAST
If this is a husband & wife business, then someone is required to gouge out their own eyes.
Penny and Dan are mother and son.
Oedipal potential notwithstanding, they've built what one of the nation's "top emerging franchise opportunities." (Source: Franchise Gator.)
And to be completely candid, their branding elements are awful.
But what the business lacks in image finesse, they make up for in other brand elements that are too often lacking:
- The right attitude well honed;
- A clear identification of the core customer;
- A smart business model delivered consistently.
ABOUT THAT FOOD TRUCK...
Once upon a time, Penny had a business slinging calzones.
She did it from a food truck that debuted at an enormous state fair in New England.
After four years of mom popping cheesy-hot pocket pies out a window, Penny's son Dan decided to open a physical, brick & mortar location in the college town of Amherst, Mass.
Dan is no dummy.
The population of Amherst is just over 30,000. And the student body at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is just under 30,000.
Amherst has a lot of students.
And a college town with a lot of students always has a screaming need for a very specific kind of food.
HELLO, LATE-NIGHT DRUNK FOOD!
Doughy cheesy tomato-saucy late-night goodness.
As the brand likes to say of themselves, they are the "pizza alternative."
Think about how much more convenient a calzone is than a pizza.
It's small, whereas pizzas take up a lot of space.
Pizzas get cold, while calzone filling stays hot.
The calzone is made in a single-serving size.
And making the calzones available until 4am daily?
If you read the reviews of their stores, you're going to find 1) a lot of praise heaped upon them by students who've been drunk and needed a fix, and 2) a lot of fond memories from former students who loved their late-night calzones and packed on 40 pounds freshman year.
TODAY, THERE ARE MORE THAN TWO-DOZEN OF THESE STORES ACROSS THE NATION
And to a store, they are all in college towns.
And as the brilliant-red neon sign in the store window says, each of them is "OPEN CRAZY LATE!"
Whether they've consciously developed a customer avatar or not, it's pretty simple to name their core customer: Drunk Student!
And the management obviously understands how to motivate their employees and keep them customer-focused. The customer reviews reflect the good attitude inside each store.
Moreover, if you read the workplace reviews from employees, you see lots of sentiment similar to this: "an awesome team that really buys into the idea of teamwork. The pay isn't great, and the hours really aren't much fun, but the people there are incredible."
SO, WHAT'S THE NAME OF THIS GENIUS FAST-FOOD MODEL?
Well, this is where it starts to get dicey. Ready?
Yep. That's the name of one of the nation's top emerging franchise opportunities.
If your brand is the one way the core customer should feel about your business, here's the one way I feel about that name: Blech! Get that dough off my teeth!
The "D.P." part is from "Dan" and "Penny."
The "dough" part refers to the medium from which a calzone crust is made.
Does it make you cringe? Makes me cringe.
And their logo is equally challenging.
"OOH, LOOK! CLIP ART AND FONTS! YAY!"
There's a cartoon drawing of a running chef holding out a paper bag.
The name of the company is spelled out in a dated-looking, unsophisticated font. (At least they didn't use Comic Sans.)
And the overall color scheme is red, white and black. (Granted, so is Jimmy John's. But relatively speaking, Jimmy John's is far more refined--if you can believe that.)
Now, in defense of the graphic designer who created the current logo, he was presented with serious limitations. He did the best he could with what he was given, i.e. an even clunkier image that could be refined only, not dumped entirely. He has far better work in his portfolio, and D.P. Dough had a problem that could be solved only within limited parameters.
That said, it all started in a really unappetizing place and has remained there.
I AM NOT DRUNK STUDENT!
I am not the core customer. I am not 20 and wearing beer goggles and looking for a meat, cheese & carb fix at 2:00 in the morning.
Though sometimes, you might wonder.
That aside, here's the thing...
It's a business being shepherded by people who understand their core customer.
They understand how to motivate their employees.
They understand what they're selling and how they're selling it.
They understand consistency of voice.
They understand the customer experience.
And the entire operation's growth has been engineered by a fellow who figures he ate over 100 calzones during his college years, and joined D.P. Dough after retiring as a Vice President at a powerhouse brand: Verizon Wireless.
FOCUS IS EVERYTHING
The D.P. Dough brand image is cheezy and artless.
But how upscale do you need to look when your core customer is Drunk Student?
"Yay, I'm broke and this place is as unsophisticated as I am! Woo hoo!"
Seriously: if you visit D.P. Dough's own YouTube channel, there is low-grade video, shot outside a gas station late at night, featuring Drunk Students chewing with their mouths open, and blathering about how much they love these calzones and can't believe they never tried them before.
Now I just feel unclean.
This is the point where we should be talking about how potent the brand is despite the obvious shortcomings of the image system.
But now, I'm mired in the molten cheese and sauce of The Decline Of Western Civilization.
DON'T WORRY, I WILL NOT START TALKING ABOUT THE ELECTION
I understand my core customer here.
And the reader of the screed is a) too refined to discuss politics or religion in polite company, and b) is not someone who would stand outside a gas station late at night, drunk and drooling at a video camera while shoving a calzone into your maw.
Anyway, D.P. Dough is not the cause of our culture circling the drain.
But they do understand the person to whom they're speaking, and who might be symptomatic of that decline.
You, dear reader, are someone else. You hold yourself to a higher standard.
And we can only hope Drunk Student might eventually get there.
In the meantime, remember: no matter your brand, if you understand your core customer, dedicate yourself to serving that person consistently and well, you can overcome a whole bunch of shortcomings.
Long live artisan pizza and good wine.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.